Men keep coming out of the woods. In the dark. Coming towards me.
I keep walking towards them, normally, holding my breath.
They are coming out of the woods, probably, because it’s a short cut from the big road to the little road. I take the short cut too, in the summer, when the days are long. Someone has dumped fifteen tires back there and run a chain through them. The edges of a blue tarp jut out from underneath about five year’s worth of leaves-turned-to-dirt. During the night, from my bedroom window, I can hear the motor of an ATV as someone runs it up and down the path. Up til they hit the railroad tracks, then back. Up and back, for hours, like a lament. I worry about what would happen if someone took that ATV away, or if it broke.
But in the winter, when the night settles in before my commute even begins, I walk the long way around, sticking to the streets, pulling cold air into my lungs.
But not the men. The men take the short cut.
I wonder what it’s like to be a man.
I wonder what it’s like to ride an ATV.
I wonder if you have to reach up into the wheel well sometimes to pull out all the leaves and mud and sticks before you can start again.
I wonder what it’s like to not worry about who’s come up behind you.
I wonder, if people were listening through their open windows at night, if they’d be able to tell it was a girl riding that ATV through the woods at night.
Our daughter was four months old and I was alone with her again in our apartment, alone with my joy as much as with my fear. I had always known I would be this way with a child, and had always been deeply uncertain as to whether all women felt this way, would prefer the company of their partner to share these feelings with, or whether most women were built for this deep loneliness, which they probably would not even call loneliness. Agnes was asleep in a sling across my chest – she would only sleep in this sling across my chest – and I was slowly washing the afternoon’s dishes, which is to say, washing peanut butter off of three spoons, when I saw the most inscrutable movement outside in the dusk, amongst the dead brown leaves along the edge of the overgrowth between buildings, and I strained my eyes against the growing dark until I knew recognition was a pipe dream, past when I knew that, until my focus shifted back to wondering where my husband was and why he wasn’t home yet, and half hoping Agnes would stay asleep, and half hoping she would wake up and look at me with her eyes that were still as gray as my grandmother’s Atlantic.
There had been parts of seconds in which the colors began to separate, and shadows began to split, and it had seemed a rodent on tall legs, nothing real.
I woke up kicking. It was Paul tickling my feet with an ostrich feather. Don’t think for a minute he’d gotten up earlier than I did; I’d fallen asleep on the sofa in the middle of the afternoon. It was the first time after a long winter that the sun came through the window warm, and I’d taken off my sweater and my socks. Paul still had his coat on.
The thing about the ostrich feather is that it was a holdover from my previous life. It wasn’t so much that I resented him touching it as it made me pity him for understanding so little, and that pity quickly turned to anger for reducing himself so innocently I could crush a lamb. (And yes, because you don’t know me yet, I will assure you that I was aware it was myself I was angry with.)
But a question formed: Who wakes up a woman who could conceivably be enjoying her last nap before going in to labor and not ever having a nap or being fully rested again until she is fundamentally changed as a human being? There were reasons to be irritated with him that in fact had nothing to do with my own inability to expel inappropriate – you might even say unfaithful – mementos.
I gave a couple more half-hearted kicks but he grabbed one of my feet and massaged it with his two big thumbs. It felt so good I forgot to be embarrassed by my swollen ankles.
I didn’t know how to teach her to get what she wants, or how to even recognize what she wants. I could have taught her, but didn’t want to, how to be useful to others, and how to mix creams so that her future husband, and others, will always love her face. So I left.
I hoped she’d find a way to interpret the mystery left in my place that would be useful to her. I hoped she might at least imagine she had a mother who was strong and unafraid. I hoped she’d never find out that I was just cleaning motel rooms in Vegas, sleeping with my boss because he thought I should, and stealing small things to convince myself there were things about me no one knew.
I work with several other women who have children, and we all agree we love them more than is good for us.
I carry one photo of her, from the time just before I left. I don’t think I knew I was leaving yet when I took it – but I must have had some idea. I can see her on Facebook now, she’s growing up, and I wish I could tell her to not let just anyone befriend her there (I use a fake profile), but it’s a relief to know my advice can’t get through.
Every single day is an effort to not return. There are mornings I start to do so before I wake up. I’ve gotten within five miles before turning around. I hope she imagines that I am free.
Some things are better at night, including myself.
During the day, I spend hours looking for answers that don’t exist. The more nonexistent the answer, the longer I look for it. It’s the same problem we’ve had with God. You can’t prove a negative.
It’s only at night, when I wake up between dreams, that I realize the questions were wrong.
In this case, the woman has probably put the question into a number of iterations, taking each one to a different kind of professional. If I were better, I’d walk her back to her original need.
How she puts it to me, because I’m a librarian, is she needs to find books containing information on government grants for feeding cats. Because I’m not at my best during the day, I spend hours researching this – it takes a lot for me to feel comfortable saying that something doesn’t exist. The uncertainty is becoming a part of my body.
But between dreams, the cats get fed. But not on government money. The woman’s hair is combed, and she’s taken her sunglasses off, and she doesn’t seem cold at all. It’s okay that she seems to be married to my husband; it means I helped her, she’s getting ahead.
Crazy people are just people who follow themselves, I think. I could be wrong. But I think this when the crows are on the low branches along the road, the fog is dense, the snow is covering the ground, and so the crows are really everything there is that morning. I think the normal thing would be to keep walking. To not pause in the midst of them and listen and look into their eyes and try to understand, even just for a few minutes before I have to keep walking to catch the bus. Bus schedules are not crazy. They are meaningless, but everyone can relate to them. Running to catch the bus, even jutting out into traffic if need be, when the bus won’t in fact be at the stop for a good twenty minutes, is normal behavior. I could instead stand among the crows until the fog lifts or they fly away or else they tell me what they mean. But I’m too chicken. I have a job and a husband and a daughter and I don’t exactly have a mortgage but I’d like to have one, I think, so I’ll pick up my step to get to the bus stop on time, and so on.
Later, when I’m standing at the edge of traffic, waiting, I’ll wonder what was at risk. What if I’d stood a little longer with the crows? I’ll wonder, how long can I keep this up?
Their black was so black but the white was all different kinds of white. I’ve never seen it so foggy in the snow. I’ll wonder, when did being human become this?
It must be the snow that makes all this look like habitat. That’s what I think when my neighbor tells me she saw a wolf last night, coming home from her shift at 3am. It was down in front of the house with all the ladders and dead ATV’s in the yard, where this time of year you can see past all the bare trees and easily see the back sides of warehouses, the trains parked on tracks, the razed land where a supermarket was supposed to go before the money fell through and where sometimes now you find the burnt remains of mattresses. When the leaves come in we believe we live somewhere else. It’s an oasis that only we and bees and an astounding variety of wildflowers know about. The snow must trick the wolves in the same way, covering the adjacent swaths of cracked, uneven pavement and reverting it all back into nature.
The other thing I think is that the people with all the ladders and dead ATV’s in their yard have a wolf. I’ve never seen anyone coming or going, though I’ve seen new junk appear in the yard. As with anyone I’ve never seen, I have every reason to believe they might own a wolf they let loose at night. Things like this never bothered me until I had a kid. Now I find myself doing what research I can online instead of sleeping.
Why is it disappointing to read that dogs kill about 2,000 people a year in North America, while wolves kill about two?
I turn to Reddit, where peoples’ experiences fly in the face of legitimate science, and fall asleep with my phone cradled in my hands, comforted by everybody’s fears.
“I’d rather not bathe here.”
“You’d rather not bathe anywhere.”
“What is this stuff?”
“When we get back to my Mom’s we can find out the best place to put our traps.”
“Why is that guy just sitting there?”
“Would you just worry about yourself, please? You’re filthy.”
“I am just worried about myself. He looks like he wants my kidneys. Jesus, do you see him?”
“Jesus died a long time ago. Hate to tell you.”
“I hate you so much – this isn’t water. I’ve felt water before.”
“Did you notice how fat my brother was? He was never fat when we were kids.”
“He wasn’t that fat. He just looked a little swollen or something.”
“Did he seem normal to you?”
“Nothing here is normal. Though I do have to say my balls feel right at home here – this water must be eighty degrees.”
“It’s good, right?”
“No. Just because my balls think so doesn’t mean it’s good.”
“Seriously, though. Didn’t he seem a little off?”
“I’m leaving. I feel like he’s managing to steal my kidneys with his eyes.”
“I just can’t tell if he’s being weird to me, or if he’s just weird now. He saw our father die, you know.”
“Lots of people see their father die. I bet ten percent of people see their father die.”
“Shit, you were right. You’re filthier now than you were before. Do you smell that? Get away from me.”
“I’ll just go offer him my kidneys. I think I’m ready.”
“I need to talk to him alone, but Mom won’t let him out of her sight. Did you notice that?”
“I noticed something like that, yeah. I noticed neither of them will look us in the eye.”
“Like they think I’m too good for them now?”
“Or like they’re afraid you’re here to claim something they have left.”
My commute is long, and I often imagine myself moving into the city. I would have to put gas in my car less often. We wouldn’t have to worry about ticks. It’s funny – my concerns seem to revolve around blood, though I would never think, I have to move into the city for blood-related issues. Except when it comes to Vernon, all but father to my son, who opts for the no-antidote blood thinner so he can eat whatever he wants. At least part of each long drive is spent imagining how I might find him, interviewing therapists who might be able to help Peter process what he saw.
The house is alone, built on land owned by a consortium of local colleges. Vernon basically makes sure no one hunts – though he’s taken a turkey here, a deer there. My son was deprived of meat before Vernon. I watch him eat what Vernon cooks and I think, My God. These males. Is there something I’m missing like that?
Last night I put my son to bed and went to stand outside. The snow had frozen on top and sleet was falling and tinkling was everywhere, adding up, on the fields, in the trees, on the roof – it made it seem like I was standing on the edge of a great big moving body of water that I couldn’t see. The night before there was a lightning storm – the first time, I think, I’d seen snow lit that way, though Vernon said he’d seen it once before.
There was just enough time to heat up leftover chili before I had to go to bed, and today I’m trying to ignore the needle, which refuses to stay put.
At a time when all our friends’ furniture is getting wispy, we’re installing a waterbed. It’s a fifth anniversary gift to ourselves, and a fulfillment of a lifelong dream. I feel competitive about my lifelong yearning for a waterbed; I’m not sure why. I only know that whenever my husband tells one of his waterbed yearning stories from his youth, I’m compelled to tell one of my own. He’s forgiving; I think he understands, maybe more than I do.
What you learn in life – I mean, one thing – is that nearly everyone wanted a waterbed as a child. And yet they all, nearly all of them, lost it. They just let that go.
I can’t get past it.
I search their eyes for depth. I’m supposed to ride on their buses, entrust them with my prescriptions, vote for them.
It’s just weird, I think. Just letting that fire go out. Just forgetting about that fire, then being so noncommittal about tending it again when it’s stumbled upon – when it comes up in conversation every three years or whatever. And no, it’s not that it makes me sad. It makes me skeptical about every aspect of that person.
So there’s a lot riding on this, on the waterbed.
I saw something on my husband’s face this morning as we lugged it up to our room piece by piece. I think he thinks I’m on the verge of something, but doesn’t know which way I’m going to go. Like I’m either going to join humanity, or leave it for good. It was, I think, a look of yearning – though he tried to cover it up.
The thing I have to tell you, daughters, is this. He is a parable waiting to happen. He is a parable because he refused to listen to other parables. In the world of parables, he will be vastly punished. There are so many just ends, and you can spend a few idle minutes imagining them. Remember, a parable ends suitably. This is work. This may require research. It will certainly require restraint. But when you have laid it out right, you will know. Have you ever fallen in love yet? I think what it is is this physical knowledge that life has meaning. Write it down before you lose it.
You have written it! You, quiet girls, whose joy comes from secret places. Who would have even noticed you?
I can see you watching the pieces, in real life, falling into place. Those recordings, when he thought he was alone at 3am Russian time. Try not to smile like that! This is a time to be sympathetic. Take the long view. Your restraint, believe me, your restraint will be worth it. You have time to watch; it’s written down.
Girls! I think I might be wrong! Get out there, disorient! This is life, not art; the judicial branch isn’t fooling anyone. It can’t keep up, it was a cheap machine, have you seen those rain clouds we’re manufacturing? You have to shoot them down. The grass might have to die. At least on the crunchy grass they will hear your feet and know you are coming.
Imagine them noticing you then!
Before breakfast, while checking on the snowfall, my daughter and I found two tiny birds trapped on our porch. One was banging around frantically; the other was still, his chest pressed against a cold windowpane, his breath leaving a mark of fog no larger than a dime.
“Don’t touch,” I told my daughter, who’s 18 months old. “They’re wild.”
“Wild,” she said; a new word. And God knows what she thought it meant just then.
I held my daughter and opened the door, chased the frantic one until it flew the right way back to wilderness. Still holding my daughter on my left hip, as I always do, I reached out for the still bird with my right hand, not expecting it to be so warm and quiet in my palm, not expecting it to even let me near.
Between dropping my daughter off at daycare and arriving at work, I was asked for some change by a man I had not seen before, whose face I liked (or rather, in whose face something I liked seemed to be reflected from very far away). He held out his hands to accept the few coins I pulled out of my pocket. Each one of his fingertips was burned – they were a coppery yellow color I have not seen anywhere else, before or since.
At noon we inaugurated a vile man to the highest office in the land. “God bless America,” he said.
In his office, he hung curtains sewn with gold thread.
The strange thing is, I hadn’t even known I believed in God. But I knew for sure that he was recoiling, I could feel it in the air.
On the way home, with my daughter in the car seat, I reversed into a spot outside my husband’s work. My rear bumper tapped the car behind me. I can’t bring myself to explain it, it was all so insignificant, the tap here, the honk there, me getting out of the car to apologize. It was all obliterated by the size of the man’s anger, the kind of anger I knew I must not smile at, must not try to be human through. There are surprises, and then there are awakenings.
God knows what I’ve woken up to.
We grabbed the tiger from the side of the road. Good solid framework, fierce eyes, fur not too matted down. The first drops of rain were starting to fall – it was supposed to rain for a week – so we figured we’d saved it.
“These things are like two-hundred dollars!” I said, as we drove a little too fast down the street.
My husband said he knew. I doubted he knew (how could he know?), but I wanted him to have known, and I wanted to share this disbelief with someone, so I pushed my knowledge away.
This woman I’d been seeing, she’d asked me, “Why do you always want to be right?” And she was right. So I kept my eye on the rearview mirror just in case anyone was coming after us, and said, again, “It’s in good shape, right?”
To which he said, “It’s in great shape, babe.”
The tiger, a rocking tiger that would be perfect for the nursery, had not been absolutely on the curb. About eight-tenths of the way there. Difficult call. But probably. Almost definitely so. And also, the rain was starting.
The woman had also noticed my reluctance to accept good fortune – though she had not seen me enough times to crack into my silly belief –a holdover from childhood – that I was sent to earth to redeem mankind. Meaning that for me, especially, God was watching. It was not something I really believed, just something that was sewn into me. Not by my parents, not by any cleric or preacher. Just by my weird child imagination. I was just a little too bored and a little too alone.
“It could have bedbugs,” I said.
“It’s a friendly neighborhood,” my husband said. “They would have put a sign on it.”
“You know it’s friendly how?”
“It’s all capes – look.”
I held him in my gaze until he had to look over at me. He waited as long as he could, because he knew the second our eyes met, we were out two hundred dollars, on top of everything else.
It turned out to be exactly what I’d thought it might be – a man walking his two dogs from his truck. They sniffed the grass along the edge of the road that ran along the tracks behind the house I lived in back then and wandered forward, while he cruised along at about five miles per hour behind them. I saw when I got closer that he was able-bodied, or at least in terms of the parts of him I could see. He was not particularly old. And his voice was strong, as he called out to let me know they were friendly – or actually, as he put it, and I took this to be a notable distinction, “not harmful.” It only then occurred to me that that would have been another explanation – that they were harmful, and so, the truck. This would have raised worthwhile questions about the nature of the rest of his life, questions about love and duty and co-dependence, but, as the rotund yellow lab licking at my hand demonstrated (the smaller black dog was paying me no mind), it was not the situation. They were not harmful. I raised my hand in hello and turned off onto the footpath I had worn down between that part of the road and my own back yard. I should have asked questions; it was more interesting that I hadn’t asked questions, and showed more power on my part. Such were the struggles of my life back then. Such were the struggles I feel like sharing. Such were the struggles that took place in my head and were in no part part of my real life.
Up the back stairs, through the back door, into the kitchen where he looked at the clock, then back at me, as if some evidence were smeared all across my sweater.
It wasn’t the snakes in his shed that got to him – it was “these old snakes.” It was like this with him. I think he just noticed different things than most people do. And so was bothered by different things, too.
“Aren’t young snakes more venomous?” I asked.
“Oh, hell,” he said. “You think I’m scared of death? I just don’t like it these critters hanging around too long, thinking they found a place to ride it out.”
“Okay, Grandpa,” I said.
Grandpa had not come in when the sirens went off. Once all danger had passed, Grandma sent me out to reel him in so he could explain himself. I sensed she already knew why he had not come in (they’d been married fifty-eight years), but she was ready for a show, it having been a dull couple of days since the funeral. No one would let her work; no one would give her any peace. She was grateful to the tornado for breaking up the day into memorable parts.
“Grandma send you?” he said.
I kept my eye on the corner, wondering if there was an old copperhead coiled up inside the stack of tractor tires there, wondering about the advantages and disadvantages of that particular spot.
“Don’t think like a snake,” he said, catching me in it. “Now come see how to make a woman happy.”
Curly hair, round hips, wayward eyes never directed my way. Two out of three traits in my favor – but this last one big enough you have to wonder why we married. Well. I was hopeful. And celebrant.
I did still love to watch her. I watched her peel an orange on the bus. She was attentive to the fruit, and there was grace in the way she dropped the peel and toed it under her seat. It surprised me that she did this.
She did not know I was watching. I was a few seats behind her, up on the high seats beyond the back door. A strange angle from which to watch one’s wife. I was not surprised she didn’t see me as she entered the bus and chose her seat; she was never too attentive to anything beyond a very close range. Life with her was intimate; life with her was exile. I noticed that while I was constantly spoken to by fellow riders on the bus, no one approached her. I envied her; I pitied her.
Even then I seemed to know we would not grow old together, though I did not yet have a clear vision of how this would come about, of how we would cease to be. I could picture that tender, exposed orange – but unlike her, I could not set my sights on its peeling. I looked down at the flesh on my arm.
One night each week I get off work well after my child has been fed dinner and put to bed and go and stand outside at the bus stop. This routine began in the summer when there was light and heat in the air, but all too soon I was standing there as a huddled mass in the dark, in my thick coat with the fur around the hood, fingering the dirty coins deep in my pocket. I never had to wait more than a few minutes.
The driver on these nights had a face I liked. It was an absent face, which allowed me to project kindness and a kind of great world-weariness onto it; the face of a man who has come to understand silence as kindness. He turned his face very slightly towards me as I dropped my coins into the slot, but really only just barely – enough that it could have been my imagination; it could have been that he continued staring straight out past his windshield as each of us climbed aboard. But I’ve learned that in these situations it’s best to believe what one likes. He turned his face ever so slightly towards me with no change in his expression and in this way revealed an achieved peace I felt I had somehow cheered him toward.
One night, someon pulled the rope to request a stop, but he didn’t stop. There was another stop within a few blocks, so rather than making a big fuss, that person just pulled the rope again. The driver slammed on the brakes like a person sitting up from a dream. He did not make the person wait for the next stop, but let him off, wordlessly, right where he’d stopped in front of the bead outlet. It could have gone either way with the rest of us – we could have all looked at each other in minor alarm and listened embarrassedly to that one down-and-out person who used the opportunity to relieve himself of all his pent-up frustration attributable to the municipality or the state; or, as happened, it could have been hard to tell if anyone else even noticed, so desperately was everyone trying to pretend like they were without company on the sea of nothingness.
So it was with some interest that I noticed the driver at the library where I worked, several days later, standing in front of the travel guides. He was stopped in front of Las Vegas – Fodor's, Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, Rick Steves. He may have raised his hand ever so slightly in the direction of removing a book, or it may just have been my imagination.
He has not missed any more stops since that night, but I no longer ride the way I did before. I don’t take anything for granted.
My bathing suit was the only problem—not even a problem, a minor annoyance, another reminder of how changed I was – but there was the constant buzzing of cicadas, and the river itself had not changed, even the Tukey boys, it appeared, had not changed, as there was fresh White Power graffiti under the bridge, and this was a strange thing to be reassured by, but one is never comfortable with the world changing in one’s absence, even for the better. I could think nothing between these minor thoughts except I love her so much, and even this was not so bad; I hadn’t expected anything different for this first time, even with everyone telling me how important it was to get back to myself. I love her so much—an in-actionable thought, just part of the hum, not to be minded. Should I enjoy it? I would, regardless. The world was the same, the rock underneath my towel felt the same on my back, the water was at its usual height, my skin prickled as it once had – the world treated my presence here as totally normal. She was in the hands of a stranger. I was lying on a rock in the sun. My bathing suit no longer fit my body but there was no one to see, so it shouldn’t bother me. The world had waited.
When I saw the snake, it seemed appropriate. A fifteen-foot python in this Kentucky river was a good way to let me know the world had not waited – by the time I comprehended the long dark shape it was as if my previous delusion had never been fully born. It didn’t occur to me that this snake could be aberrant, that maybe I should call somebody. My only thoughts were, I guess we have to be a little more careful now and I love her so much. They happened on top of each other, though we have no way of writing this – II gluoevses hweer shoavme utcoh be a little more careful now? I rolled up my towel and walked back to my car (the snake was on the opposite bank), relieved, I might tell no one, to be going home to her.
Odd things attracted Maeve. She was aware of this.
For instance, she fell in love with Cole while he was cooking meat. He jabbed a thermometer into the side of a raw pink slab, then slowed way down, as if unsure if he should continue.
“What?” She said.
But he was still hesitating, not yet throwing the meat over the coals.
“She was scared,” he said. “Feel how tough.”
But Maeve didn’t want to feel how tough. She didn’t want to touch or look at the meat. She wanted to watch his man’s face made more beautiful by sadness. She wanted to watch the sadness interact with the deep purples in the shadows underneath his eyes and nose.
“We could bury it instead,” she said, because she couldn’t let him be sad forever – not yet.
So they buried what would have been their dinner, because the cow was terrified at the moment of slaughter, or maybe for many moments leading up to the slaughter, or maybe even for her entire life. Did this change anything? Was terror not universal? In that moment, in that evening as they ate their corn in the grass and ignored their deeper hunger, she could believe it was something that could be stopped.
“The coyotes again,” I said. Melinda’s daughter must have taken her shopping again. The signs were everywhere. The back of her shirt was held together by strips of fabric tied into tight little knots, and her shoes looked like they were made out of cardboard. I didn’t talk about home at work much, but with Melinda I did, for reasons unclear to me. It was not the first time she told me I looked like shit.
There were coyotes, and I did listen to them when sleeping would have been more the thing to do. Other times there were raccoons in heat. Other times, trains. Or else just the radio. I listened to them all equally. I only mentioned the coyotes because Melinda was at once in awe of me for living where I did, and very disapproving.
I was scared for Melinda, sometimes, for what that particular daughter could make her do. Take the buying of such an absurd shirt and follow it to its logical conclusion. I do take some comfort in knowing that whatever crazy thing she ends up doing, Melinda will never get fired. Who else would work here? So, Melinda can wear clothes she doesn’t have the proper underwear for, and I can sleep under my hulking metal desk.
Cindi was talking to me. Where had she come from? She was talking about how she’d missed her hair appointment because the bus driver didn’t stop for her. He didn’t stop for her because she knew things about him that could ruin his life and he was afraid of her.
“Awful!” I said. Cindi took a step back and scrutinized my face. When I’d first started, I’d mistaken her for staff. She could look normal. I glanced at her fingernails. It was part of my job to make sure they stayed trimmed. They were not trimmed. “Your hair looks okay,” I said, adjusting my tone. “Not wonderful, but.”
“I’ve seen tidier beaver dens,” she said, indicating my own hair. Cindi could on occasion be a remarkably dispassionate judge.
“The coyotes,” I said. Cindi sighed.
“The coyotes,” she said. “What are we going to do about the coyotes?”
It’s always something at the U-Haul. A fight or something. Once, there were about ten of us in line, the only dude working out showing a truck, making little checkmarks on a clipboard to prove it was all undamaged before leaving the lot. The phone had been ringing non-stop. Well, it would stop for about five seconds, then start up again. After about eight hours of this a guy a few guys behind me took about a dozen decisive strides up to the counter, picked up the phone and yelled, “There’s no one here to answer your fucking call!” and slammed it back into its receiver. Then he got back in line. The rest of us weren’t sure if he was our hero, or someone to watch out for. Also, none of us were sure if we were compatriots, or each other’s competition. I looked at my shoes. I hated those shoes, and I suddenly regretted not having left them at the dump, where I’d taken all our mostly-empty cans of paint and bottles of ancient, turned-to-powder cleaners. I’d rather have been barefoot right then, inside U-Haul, instead of wearing those shoes. What’s the point of moving if you can’t get rid of the things you hate? You should only take things you love into a new home. That’s what I thought I’d tell my wife, when I got home with the truck. In about ten hours, at the rate we were going. How she took it was up to her.
Sometimes, whether you mean to or not, you catch glimpses of what your husband will be like when he’s old. Not just this middle-forties old, but old.
Mine has a tape collection. He wouldn’t call it a collection. He just has an interest in tapes, and tends to bring home rolls of it – rolls he couldn’t pass up at the hardware store or the dollar store or the art store or the office store because it has a weight-bearing capacity of 20 pounds or because it leaves no sticky residue or because it’s threaded so that it can be easily ripped or because it is so thin, two millimeters to be exact, and a beautiful coppery gold. The long edge of the table where he makes his drawings is studded with these varying stubs. He also uses tape for household projects that most people would attack with a drill and wood screws, like securing towel hooks in the bathroom. This means I find the tape nubs everywhere, like little inch-long hash marks for the number of projects he’s accomplished in a day. They are not always in conspicuous places. He says he just forgets to throw them away. But I suspect it’s worse than that. I suspect he cannot bear to.
Maybe it’s not so much that I catch glimpses of what my husband will be like when he’s old, but of what our house will be like. My husband and our house, bonded by tape. Leaving me where, exactly?
“Know what’s fascinating?” I say – now, not when we’re old. “This tape here” – and I gesture toward a tongue of sky blue duct tape flapping from the kitchen counter – "has the ability to repel.”
I say this – and other similar things – not because I really care. Not now. But I worry about how things will be.
Jonathan taught me three things today: that back in the day giraffes were called cameleopards, that a woman eating calamari at a restaurant – who had understandably (but ultimately incorrectly) assumed that the tiny squid in her mouth was dead – let out a cry when it suddenly injected its sperm sac into her cheek, and that I am vastly unhappy. Guess which fun fact I was the least thrilled to learn.
But it’s not entirely true. Because I did find myself, even if it was a couple of hours later, appreciating the restaurant scene. The restaurant is a clean white canvas and that scream is a sudden splatter of black paint. The sperm sac was the invisible context, that would be explained on the placard if the painting ever made its way into a museum.
What I was thinking about, when I couldn’t exist in the present moment enough to give my husband a smile right off the bat – why my "inability to feel joy anymore" was brought up in the first place – was how nobody paints the unknown anymore. For centuries, artists painted God. They painted the heavens – by which I mean both Heaven itself and the artists’ conceptions of the universe. They painted maps of a flat earth with vast stretches of dense forest and deep waters, with enormous red sea monster heads popping up here and there. These weren’t fantasies; they were guesses. They were tries. Do people paint that way anymore? What do we do now that everything is known? Paint ourselves?
She kept talking about her heart pussy, but I thought she in fact meant her pussy heart. Either way, it was wanting. Throbbing. The object if its desire: the man she saw planting orange stakes around her neighbor’s property. Orange steaks? I thought, then caught up with her. It was a sad image to abandon, but I counted my blessings: I was still left with heart pussy vs. pussy heart, which would keep me busy for a good part of the afternoon – it was a slow day (a chill had crept over the falls from the Other Side), and aside from this one woman, my Monday regular, no one seemed to want any of my Hawaiian Shaved Ice. Her lips were purple. It doesn’t take much Grateful Grape to do that.
“Why do you think he was planting those stakes?” she said, cutting herself short.
She had complained to me before about that neighbor, who lived in the upstairs of his building and rented to two “blacks” down below. Are you starting to get the picture? Nuts-o.
“Could it be he was just trying to get a glimpse of you?”
She looked at me like I was maybe a little simple. I was only in high school, but it had been clear since the beginning of summer that she expected more from me, that she expected a worthy confidante.
“I mean, maybe he only really needed to plant one stake, but once he saw you watching him he wanted to look busy. Maybe he was trying to impress you.” Most of what I knew about boys back then had to do with this idea of impressing (to wit: my current boyfriend’s latest skateboarding injury). Most of what I knew about selling shaved ice on a cold day in mid-October had to do with applying flattery – though there had been a small window during which I thought it had to do with simply being a good listener.
She was thinking on that possibility, but I could already see the idea was not going to take. But the pause gave me time to consider, again: heart pussy, or pussy heart? And throughout my life, some of my loves have been driven by one, some the other. It’s been the ones I still can’t classify that have really left me shattered.
It’s skunk season again. My husband said nothing, but I saw he took the machete with him and the dog. It was after midnight, but that didn’t stop him from hacking down the bushes around the porch. Fine. Look like a crazy man. I checked the baby, and went to bed.
The next night I couldn’t persuade him to leave the machete while they walked. “You’ll scare people,” I said. He also took a flashlight. He’d picked up fresh batteries on his way home from work.
It was last year, mid-season, that he stopped talking about them. I guess I teased him a bit too much. If there was silence in the room you could bet two things: I was thinking about where to buy a house, and he was thinking about skunks.
It’s a year later, same old apartment building with mold in the bathroom walls, same old skunks coming out of hibernation. There’s a funk in the room that no machete can cut through.
“Babe,” I say.
“We can’t move.”
“The skunks,” I say.
You may remember the man who was bleeding from his head? I suspected some self-surgery. Well, you should have seen the sutures in his cheek today. I do not mean to be gross. It’s just a way of saying: What goes on in peoples’ lives?
I saw a boy on my way here. He was in the grass. Boys are always in the grass. But this one was in the grass in the median of the interstate. He did not appear lost or distressed. He looked like any other boy in the grass, his mind half focused what his body was doing, half focused on what he imagined it was doing. I can’t stop wondering where he went after that.
I guess I’m a mystery, too, to others. They see me here every day. Maybe they even see me waiting for the bus that goes to the other town. They imagine my face resting against the cool glass of the window, my breath fogging it up, the fat around my waist jiggling slightly as we take the bumps. But I must be the only one, of all of us, who just disappears until I come back.
It was not so long ago that I was really happy with this sponge. Made happy by this sponge. Uplifted by it, and coddled by it. A glass of wine is nice. Someone to drink it with, often nice. A clean sponge with which to wash the glass: shit man, might as well die right now. This is it. No odor. No discoloration. No scratches on the glass. The pinnacle.
It really can’t have been more than a few days ago. What the fuck?
She approached the foster dog with leather gloves. The idea was to move it from her couch, which was leather, and the most expensive purchase of her life, into its crate. Its teeth had already drawn blood once – and though the large Band-Aid across the milky smooth surface of her forearm was probably unnecessary, it gave her some peace in lieu of an actual witness. Can latex share pain? If we are lonely enough, yes, it can. Anything can. She took another step forward and the little dog drew back its upper lip. Its tiny little teeth were yellow and plaque-ridden. Poor little pup. Fucking little pup. Fucking Marian who told her this would be a good idea. She’d always trusted Marian. She would take a picture of the beast right now and text it to her, write look what you’ve gotten me into, but Marian was gone. That was the point. Marian was gone, and the dog was here, occupying her time, her mind, her goodwill, and, of course, her couch. She took another step forward, looked around one more time to see if there were any solutions she hadn’t noticed before. The dog went into a frenzy, then peed. What would Marian say? That there was a gift in this. The discovery of the ability to rise above material attachments. How far had such leaps in attitude gotten Marian? Well, that was obvious. But where had they gotten her? The skin around the Band-Aid itched. The dog scittered to the other end of the couch, tracking its urine along with it. This was something to be grateful for. In all of this, always, something to be grateful for.
The last woman I tried not to love had an undertow. It didn’t always come from the same place, or move in the same direction, so you couldn’t avoid it. If you were in her, you were fair game. But it wasn’t a fair game. I was an idiot, and she wasn’t.
The next woman I try not to love will probably have brown hair. I just have a feeling. It’s time. She’ll likely be kind, athletic, and conflict-averse. If she gets pissed, she’ll go for a run. And I’ll sit on the porch like an idiot and get drunk enough to pick the fight when she comes back sweating like an angel. I’ll tear her down out of the sky.
The last woman I ever love will take pity on me. She’ll scrub the thunder out of my cracks, rinse the lightening out of my hair. I’ll wonder why she sticks with me, and know it won’t be long yet before I’m in the ground and she can dance on the earth between us before laying her head down in my old bed, before going through all my things.
The little baker made dirty comments every time I went in for a croissant. He was so little, I have to admit, that I allowed him to get away with more than I would usually tolerate. I also really liked his croissants, and – knowing how much brute force goes into rolling the buttered layers properly – was particularly impressed, given – again – his reduced stature. As it always goes with these things, it became increasingly difficult to put an end to his lewdness – which had a particular knack for implicating me, somehow, in its dirtiness, as if I were the one attempting to drag the other into my net of sexual degradation – until I finally had to decide to start buying my croissants at a different bakery (actually, there were no other sufficient croissants in town, and I was compelled to become a bagel-eater, which is not my natural wont). So, you can imagine my mixed feelings when I heard that the little baker had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and was training an apprentice so that he could leave behind something he was proud of. As far as I know, he had no children.
Several months later, I went in for a croissant, wondering if I would finally be able to enjoy a good croissant without all the emotional consequences of before – namely, what failure or inability or downright character flaw allowed me to feel so sullied after each visit?
When I pushed through the door, the same little bell that had always chimed announced my entrance, and with a certain amount of bravery – or shame, I don’t know which (or perhaps they are not mutually exclusive?) – I looked up to see who would greet me.
Much has been written about the constant drip of a faucet. It is like the yellow wallpaper, I think? But what if all the noise and movement of the world is like that drip.
The books said my baby would not like to be naked. They were wrong. She tears her pajamas off at night. She can barely use her hands, but this she can do, snap by snap. My husband is impressed. I loaded the baby into the car to go buy an extra heater for our room, so she wouldn’t catch a cold once she was naked during the night. My husband complained of the heat, slept naked on top of the covers, and caught a cold.
Within a few days, I started sneezing, too. The skin under my nose became raw, because my husband had already used all the tissues, and I was left with only toilet paper. Then the illness went to my husband’s stomach. We ran out of toilet paper, and suddenly our paper towels had three roles to play.
Still, the baby slept soundly through the night, once she had gotten out of her pajamas.
The books said babies might go quiet when in a hypothermic state, to conserve heat. Was this why she was sleeping so soundly? Because she was freezing to death? I turned up the heater. My hair clung to everything it touched. When I picked up the baby, a shock of electro-static passed between us. I loaded her into the car to go buy a humidifier. The store didn’t have any humidifiers. I did not want the trip to be in vain, so I bought a serving bowl. I forgot about toilet paper. When I got home, the radio was going, but my husband was gone, and I left again to return the bowl, which was a silly thing to buy.
There are times at work when my vagina opens like a flower. Just like that – there I am arguing over allotments, or simply sorting boxes, when – whoosh – there it goes: it blossoms. You can’t un-see a Georgia O’Keefe, my sister says. (She’s a fan, but encounters many in her line of work who aren’t.) This blossoming only started recently, and I wouldn’t say it’s because I’m at work, more like despite it. At 62, the sensation is not unwelcome. And these days, with the security cameras and the email monitoring and the accountability pledges, it’s simply nice to have a secret. Even if I do sometimes get thrown for a minute, and even if I do somewhat fear getting caught. The thing on my key ring counts my steps and monitors my heart rate – but is that really all? I’m not paranoid. I’ve taken all these changes in stride, I know there’s no use remembering that the world I lived in with my husband was a different world, that I can’t even fantasize about him being back on earth with me, because how would he fit into all of this? The fantasy gets snagged on anachronisms. And the tiniest snag, in fantasyland, takes it all down – or anyway, makes you work so hard to blind yourself to it that you give up more often than not, just open your eyes and move on with the day, the real day, the one that hasn’t waited for you at all yet might be exactly where you left it. Would he laugh about my vagina blossoming at work? Maybe that’s what I like about all this. This is something I could still talk to him about. I can imagine cooking him dinner, swaying a little over the stove in rhythm with the Django Reinhardt he’s put on, and saying, “oh by the way – it happened again today!” and him laughing in that way that turns to a growl and moving a bit himself to the music, and thinking to himself all the while, even as he listened to my story, “and the man was down a finger . . .” He and my sister. Did I really get jealous when they used to talk for hours in the middle of the night and I had to come out of the bedroom with some lame excuse about the loons? No, I didn’t, and there he is at the table, same table, no sister, no loons, Reinhardt coming over the speakers, my husband’s inability to ever simply just hear the music, to ever consider any of us independent from our flaws.
The moss has died. Down at the point, under the dark spruce. I used to take my shoes off there, to feel it. It was springy and soft – of course it was soft – in a way that made me feel buoyant. Even when I wasn’t a kid anymore and my knee had started to go. For about twelve steps there I was buoyant.
It is not acceptable – socially, politically, religiously – to mourn the loss of my extreme privilege. That is, the loss of this land. That land. It belongs to the public now. I can’t mourn that.
After all, I am part of the public, too.
Along with that middle-aged couple having sex in the little depression behind the large chunk of granite that looks like a praying monk. Having as much right as myself to leave their bottles of Coors on the ground while they do it. Good for them. I look away and be as quiet as possible, sort of slinking away backwards, all while continuing to count my uncountable blessings.
When they pick up their bottles, if they do, there will be pine needles clinging to the wet bottoms, and I bet they will feel a little used up in unnamable ways.
Fact is, there’s more foot traffic now, and the moss has died. I’m just stating a fact.
The woman at Target tells me she heard them say on the news there’d be a lot of babies, because of the hard winter. I’ve been buying diapers, one pack each paycheck, but it’s the first time I’ve had this checkout lady. This is probably the last pack I’ll buy before the baby comes. I don’t point out to the woman that since I’m due next week, this baby was conceived in September, well before the bitter cold set in. She’s pleased with herself, and she has to wear that red shirt and those khakis, so why should I interfere?
The conversation she had with the woman in front of me was about the Oreos the woman was buying. They both like the kind the woman bought, but agree that the S’mores ones are “tasteless.”
At home, the diapers go in a drawer I’ve specified for diapers. Below that drawer is one for short-sleeved onesies and pants. Below that, a drawer for long-sleeved items and sleepers. Up top is a basket for socks, and a different basket for mittens, hats, and booties. I know this system won’t last, but I’ll be damned if it breaks down before the child is born.
I don’t like the quiet way my husband watches me arrange and re-arrange the packs of diapers in the drawer. The parenting books talk a lot about using distraction. “Apparently the newscasters are all patting their backs for predicting the explosion of babies after the long winter,” I say. “According to the woman at Target.” And for reasons I need not think about, he picks up that line of conversation, and we talk, while I settle on the right arrangement.
Tree with eagles’ nest (dead)
Water (sputtery – air in pipes)
Spider carcasses (none – does this mean they’re still alive?)
Ant carcasses (come back to life when we try to sweep them up)
Bird carcasses (only two)
Bat carcasses (none)
Grandma (still gone)
Grandma’s hat (hanging in kitchen)
Grandma’s dresses (hanging in closet, ruined – so that’s why she used mothballs)
Mothballs from 1976 in upstairs trunk (can just shut the fuck up)
All of it (mine now)
Me (slow and quiet, afraid of trying to wake it all up)
Language (useless here)
Like everything else out there, the poison oak was more potent. I kept my legs wrapped, from the knees up, in several layers of gauze that I changed every hour, ideally, to keep the oozing under control. But this was Marin, and even at the thousand-dollar gala, there were only Port-a-Pots, and so I was pushing the limits. It was my little secret, this mess hidden under the skirt of my dress, a dress borrowed from my boss. It was her wedding dress, but her first one. My other secret was that I was an unpaid intern. I was there because my boss wanted me there – she bought my ticket because she wanted it to look like the newspaper was thriving, that even the employees were able to eat and dance and mingle at these parties. I would rather have had the thousand dollars.
Two local boys made a bet on me. They lurked behind the food tables as everyone became more drunk. They were waiting to pack up the hay bales they’d carted in for seating. They didn’t even bother snatching food. They took turns approaching me. They both told me, outright, they’d made a bet on me, and asked which of them I found more handsome. I played along. I knew I was safe. I had a secret under my dress. My boss shot me disapproving looks. I was supposed to be dancing with the water commissioner, or refilling my sticky chardonnay glass alongside the director of the land trust. At the very least, flirting with one of the farmers whose lease on National Seashore property went back three generations.
I felt a dribble of ooze escape the gauze and run down to my ankle. “You’re more handsome,” I said. “But your friend is winning.”
On the far side of the party, my boss was finally drunk enough not to care. I left without either of the boys. I pulled my car off to the side of the road after I’d passed the reservoir. In the dark aloneness, I peeled away the gauze, layer by layer, and crawled into the back seat for a nap. The dress was going to be ruined, but I belonged to the poison oak now.
The end result was I was narcoleptic. I kept the shop open and passed out behind the counter, or even in one of the overstuffed chairs out on the floor, and hoped for the best. I just hoped that if the owner realized that merchandise was going missing on a regular basis, she wouldn’t think it was me who was taking it. We sold very high-end lingerie. One missing bra would set the owner back significantly. I might have explained my condition to her and asked to take a little time off, but I was sure this thing would wear off any day. Also, she was away in Europe, on a buying trip, and I knew it would be a pain for her to try to find someone to fill my spot. We were just a two-woman operation. And besides, she paid me under the table, and I didn’t exactly get sick days. I still needed the income.
I woke up on one of those overstuffed chairs out on the floor, my cheek pressed up against its rough upholstery (they were antique chairs, and done up in a carpet-like fabric, depicting that famous unicorn in a pen in the middle of some dark, old-Europe woods), and a man was standing over me. He was holding the silk bodice the owner had picked up in Hungary on her previous trip. It was too late to pretend I hadn’t been asleep, so I wiped the small amount of drool away from my roughed-up cheek and said “Pardon me” and gave a little smile. The man held out the bodice, which was shockingly smooth in contrast to the upholstery of the chair (which I now noticed had left its bumpy imprint not just on my cheek, but all along the outside of my left arm, and because my skirt had shifted up a bit in my sleep, along a bit of my left buttocks and thigh as well) and I already knew what he wanted me to do. Six times out of ten these guys wanted to see how something looked on a woman before they took it home to their wife. One time out of twenty did they buy the thing afterward.
My eyelids were still heavy, and I could have easily gone back to sleep with him still standing there, tucking the smooth bodice under my cheek to protect it from the coarseness, if only that were something that I deserved.
Margaret had this habit of spitting. It began to get on my nerves. She didn’t think I knew she was spitting, because I was blind. She would do this thing where we’d be walking along (she would take me to church each Sunday morning, being my neighbor – down Ridge Street then up the little hill to Woodlawn), and she would slow up, and sort of lean over away from me, towards the grass of someone’s lawn so there’d be no sound of splat, and I can only imagine let the stuff dribble in a silent chain from her mouth to the ground. She must have saved the saliva in her mouth until there was no one around. Margaret in her church clothes, spitting as if unseen. I would have respected her more if she’d just out and done it, no secrets, no shame. No thinking she could pull the cloak over the blind woman’s head.
I let it go on for months. Each time I noticed the slowing of our steps, the near-imperceptible tug on my right elbow as she leaned away, the slight silent bump in the otherwise smooth silence that signified our time together, I hated her a little more. A blind woman does not like having to play dumb as well as helpless, and it was really only a matter of time before I began plotting her humiliation.
He called my name again and I got up out of my plastic chair.
“Need to take your vitals,” he said.
“Just for fun?” I asked. We’d already been through this once.
“You’ve been here two hours,” he said. “After two hours we have to make sure you’re still alive.”
I sat behind the Plexiglas screen that separated his station from the waiting room and he clamped my finger. An Arab man passed behind the Plexiglas while I sat there with the thermometer under my tongue.
“Ever notice you don’t ever see any of them with Downs or anything?” the nurse said.
Because of the thing under my tongue, I figured his question was rhetorical.
“Ninety-seven point eight,” he said. “You’re alive and free to keep on waiting.”
My wife made spaghetti that night. She’d warmed up a length of garlic bread from the Winn-Dixie, and I mopped my plate with a good half-foot of it.
“Ever notice you never see a retarded Arab?” I said.
“What’s that,” my wife said. She was clearing the table and hadn’t heard me.
“Nothing,” I said.
“How you feeling?” my wife asked me, after we’d brushed our teeth and gotten under the covers. She was wearing her fleeced nightshirt with the Bengals logo all over it. I’d helped our son Aaron pick it out for her one Christmas. I was wearing my tighties.
“Better,” I said, though it wasn’t really true. The stone would just have to pass on its own, no controlling when.
“Damn,” my wife said, rolling back out of bed to say her nightly prayer on her knees. Two nights out of ten she forgot like this.
“What’d you pray for?” I asked her after.
“The Arab world,” she said.
“The Arab World?” I said. In what sense, I wondered, did my wife pray for the Arab world?
“And for Aaron,” she said, a bit more honestly.
I nodded. Always she prayed for Aaron, while I cursed his giant heart.
It used to be I’d watch the rain come in over the ocean. It brought with it the smell of rain, but also of the ocean. Now I watch it come in over the prairies. It brings with it the smell of rain, but also of the prairies, and of highways. We moved here to take care of my husband’s grandmother. She’s our last remaining grand-thing. It wasn’t necessarily a great time to move to western Kansas, but it was a good time to leave the coast. I’d gone to bed with another man, maybe a few hundred times, and the town was beginning to feel too wired. Like if this one small piece of life blew up, it would all blow up. But that’s all beside the point. The point is, the rain . . .
I think I prefer this prairie rain. It feels more personal. Rain coming in towards the coast, at least the Atlantic coast, makes you think of history. It makes you think of all the rain that has come in towards the coast, ever. You are very aware of how indifferent it is to you. Sometimes that can be nice. But this prairie rain. It feels new. It feels like it’s coming to meet you. It hasn’t learned to give up on you yet. Grandma nods like she’s known this all along; she’s lived in Kansas all her life. The people out here are like this. They don’t tell you what they know, but if you hit on something yourself, they give you this little nod or smile that welcomes to you to the club. I feel like a child, here, in ways that are pleasant, and ways that are not. My husband seems much older to me here. He sees the rain coming, and speeds up his work.
The second wedding was for Mom, and was more interesting, because she thought she was supposed to be the bride. A few of our guests, relatives who had known Mom in her better days, had stuck around to fill out the scene, which was taking place in the dining room of her group home. The guests were all a little hung-over from the night before, but they hung in there, they were troopers. Reza was a trooper, too. While we were exchanging our vows (again), Mom got up from her chair and started pulling Reza’s hair. Reza gave Mom her little white veil and sat down politely amongst our relatives. Mom stood next to me and grinned, and we enacted what was beginning to take shape as her wedding to my father, some thirty years earlier.
My father wasn’t among the crowd. He and Lydia hadn’t thought it would be a good idea. In his defense, he and my mom had split well before Mom’s dementia set in. Or anyway, it hadn’t seemed like dementia just yet. He hadn’t seen her since she moved into the home. He and Lydia hadn’t wanted to confuse her now, not on me and Reza’s big day. Our second, kind-of-fake big day. They stayed home and nursed their hangovers like normal privileged wedding guests. Of course, this didn’t keep Mom from getting confused, and here she was, marrying him all over again. I tried to think of the things my father might have said to her on that day, whispering into her ear in the rare moments no one else was looking at them. Jesus, did I get sad, doing this. But I was a trooper too; I stuck with it. God, I love Reza.
The girl put the stuffed lion in her shirt, but she knew the boy had already seen it. He’d seen it with his gawky Tennessee eyes as he swiveled around in the front seat and stared at her. She knew if he asked her for it, she’d have to give it to him.
She was sitting in the back seat next to her mother and her baby brother. They hadn’t brought his car seat, as there wasn’t room, there was all this trash. They’d been driving north, home to Louisville, when the engine stopped. They’d waited on the hot side of the road for someone to stop and help. It was really, really hot. It was this two-door Pontiac that stopped. It was this man and this boy, who wouldn’t take his eyes off her. They were both drinking sodas out of cups with straws, and the girl wanted a drink of one, maybe as much as the boy wanted something else from her. Nothing was worth losing the lion, though. If she and her mother accepted one more favor from these two, she knew, the lion would be as good as the boy’s. She’d owe it to him.
She stared out the window: at a tractor store, at a lumberyard, at a duck pond with a painted-white gazebo standing on a man-made island in the middle of it. A bunch of cows in a dead-looking field looked hot, and made her want a drink of soda even more. She gathered up all the saliva in her mouth she could and swallowed it. She stared at a long, low building with blacked-out windows, inside of which there were videos and live entertainment. Her baby brother, all sweaty, whimpered. Until then, she’d thought of him as something separate.
Everyone tells you that everyone tells you things. That people see a pregnant belly and their memory centers go wild. I wasn’t expecting this to be so true. I wasn’t expecting the men to get so teary, even if they were a little drunk, because they were a little drunk – this fact was best concealed from the staff, and so they usually kept their lips pressed tight when passing through our lines. I never expected to know of their lives before, of these beautiful moments of hope – an infant passed over from a doctor’s arms – long before, or maybe just before, it all collapsed. You could smell in their breath that these children hated them now. But that was a different story, saved for when they turned away, and fell silent again, not quite able to see the other men at the tables, the abstractions they shared their lives with now, the ones next to whom there might now be a seat available. This now, this talking, this overexcited remembering, was for the good stuff, the beginnings. I wondered if I was being irresponsible.
The boys, by the time they are six, know how to steal the breath from a newborn lamb before it has a chance to bleat. The girls know how to dive. They go down deep, where the nutrients are rich, and the fish are knotted and ugly. Blunt-headed. The spears have to be small, as the girls are small. They bring up fish larger than themselves. The boys would like to do this work, but they stand on the cliffs, watching, holding still lambs to their chests, their lungs full of the lambs’ last breaths. They might exhale slowly, while watching. The girls know all about exhaling slowly. It’s how they go so deep.
I clutch my American baby to my breast. She’s her own thing here. She’s admired for her uselessness. The women, they tell me, she has a queen’s laziness. She is not meant for work. They take her from me whenever they can, they parade her as if she is their own. Their fat arms jostle as they bounce her. The men watch this display of fat – the womens’, my baby’s. It is enough that these women were skinny once, when they were divers. Now that they’ve done their part, they grow, and are applauded heartily. All the girls in the water will be fat one day. I will not be here then, and neither will my baby.
There was a time I would have rooted for the seagull over the cat—the cat representing, in my mind, something domesticated and therefore an extension of unjust human dominance, and the gull an emblem of wild, unblemished nature. But I’ve lived among these gulls for over a year now, and as I watched the two creatures duking it out on my neighbor’s rooftop, I found myself cheering every time the cat got in a swipe that made the gull take a hop backwards towards the edge. The roof, as it happened, was streaked with gull shit. As was my own. As were they all. As were all our bags of trash set out to curb on Thursday nights ripped open by their filthy beaks, revealing everything we’d tried to keep concealed from neighbors. As they descended on these bags – not in the obscurity of night, not silently like the skunks and the raccoons with their small but not totally worthless brains, but at first light, with enormous unnecessary squawks, with screeches of unwarranted gull glee, as if calling all the neighbors to wake up and come out and look, to see what Imogen threw away this time, look, she’s on the rag!, while simultaneously warding off their compatriots, the five thousand other gulls circling overhead all waiting for their own chance at our now-public refuse – there was nothing to do but hate them, these emblems of the untamed sea that drew me here.
It’s an old building, so I decide to get up, dress myself, and go for a walk. I know the neighbors are sick of my hacking, as is my boyfriend. It’s been going on fourteen nights now. It’s 3 am and the streets are empty. Now, as I walk, I wake people up as I go, my hacking drifting in through their windows. But I’m moving along, and they can go back to sleep. I take a seat at the edge of the park.
I’ve soon attracted a small audience from the bushes. These guys weren’t sleeping well anyway, even with the drugs in their veins. I should have brought my dog with me. But the poor girl was sick of my hacking too; even she deserved a good night’s rest. I decide to keep moving, and one of the bush men moves with me. He stays a good fifteen feet behind me, but his presence drives me toward someplace less alone.
I take a seat in the emergency room. The bush man takes a seat opposite me. These plastic chairs. We still haven’t spoken. I hack into my sleeve. He lets his head droop to one side, trying to use his own shoulder as a pillow. I try this too, but stretching my neck like this activates the phlegm in my chest, and I explode into fits again. A woman seated nearby moves to the far side of the room. Nothing looks wrong with her, except worry. “Oh, fuck her and her fancy pony,” the bush man says, suddenly awake again. So it’s me and him now. Until dawn, at least – which is taking its own sweet time. It, too, is feeling merciful.
I don’t know if I heard this right, but I think they said that pillows are disallowed in the brothels of Amsterdam, to reduce the chances of impulse snuffing. As if the laws there in Amsterdam are set by congress people struggling to maintain their own diets. No Snickers bars in the bedside table. No pillows in the brothels. Same logic. Could that be right? Could that be what they said?
There was a teacher here, he went after some of the girls in his eighth grade class. No one knew this until after his death. A girl died with him, in his Camry, on the railroad tracks. The parents of the girl said he got what he deserved, which brought them some kind of peace. But if they believe in that sort of cosmic justice, what do they think that says about their daughter? She was wiped out, too.
I’m just trying to understand these people. I know maybe it sounds like I’m saying they’re the crazy ones. But really, if you knew me, you’d know I’m not so cocksure. I’m afraid there’s something I’m missing. I’m just trying to piece this whole thing together. I’m trying out eke out some logic, but also some camaraderie. I want to be on the same page, sometimes.
When I was a kid, I thought I’d become a country vet. I knew they did all kinds of work, but mainly I wanted to be called out of bed in the middle of the night to birth calves. There was something about the idea of being cold and tired on the floor of a barn, and going elbow- or even shoulder-deep inside a cow while she breathed and lolled her eyes at a pile of hay hilled up against the edge of her stall that seemed a better reward than crawling back under the blankets after being called out of bed is for a non-vet. I wanted that hard-earned warmth, while the world slept.
I live in a city. I don’t work at a desk exactly, but I work near desks. I work with people, and our transactions are moderated by a computer. There’s little I can do to help them, besides just listening, without first making some adjustments on a computer. Occasionally I have to go fix the toilet when it gets jammed up by one of the people, or by one of us, the staff. I don’t mind this work like the others do; that’s why it falls to me. When I’m in there with the plunger, I often enjoy the aloneness of it, and the challenge, even when I’m struck by the irony: I’d once dreamed of bringing matter out through a narrow channel, and here I was, all grown up, trying to force matter through a narrow channel, but enjoying myself all the same.
I think, there must be something going on here. This must be some clue about what I really want.
It was the day the dogs were getting married. Nora had been planning it all week. Now, Saturday morning, when her father woke her up, she saw not only that the sky was overcast and threatening to rain, but that that crown of dandelions she’d woven for Emma the night before, which was hanging around the post of her bed, was wilted. She bolstered herself for the challenges of the day. No one had ever told her this was going to be easy.
“Papa,” she said. “Where’s Charlie?”
“Out in the barn, dear.”
“Good, good. And Emma?”
“She’s in the kitchen with your mother.”
Nora grinned. She’d asked her father the night before to make sure the dogs didn’t see each other before the ceremony, but her father was sometimes forgetful. No so today!
“And what time is it, Papa?”
Nora did some quick math. “We have exactly three-and-a-half hours to get the banquet ready. And I have to weave a new crown.”
Nora’s father like being bossed by his daughter today, and on his way to the barn to check on Charlie, who he’d put out the night before, he collected not just dandelions, but a few wild daisies and purple clovers as well, hoping his daughter would appreciate the variety. But as he approached the barn the father in him drained away, and he was all farmer. Something out here was not right. The whole world seemed to stand still with him.
They all had the iconic photograph. The children, the grandchildren . . . even the great-grand children, who had never met Craig and Edith, grew up looking at the photo on the fridge, or on the mantel, or in a frame hanging above their crib. It really did convey them well, sitting there in the stern of the Dory, the island behind them . . . Edith dressed in a wrap skirt and a wool cardigan, her strong calves bulging, her white hair held back from her bright face with pins, laughing over her shoulder toward Craig; Craig in a white cotton button-down tucked into his dark wool trousers, grinning straight at the camera under his floppy hat, which he’d no doubt scavenged off the beach. They are perfectly unified and seemingly independent of anything outside of themselves. It could be their island behind them that lent this aspect. But one day one of the children, who’d lived with this photo in one way or another since it was taken twenty-five years before, and who smiled at in in passing in a special way now that Craig and Edith were gone from this world – or gone as far as she could understand it –, realized something: Someone else had been in that boat with them. Someone had taken the picture. She could think of no good reason this should make her mood plunge suddenly the way it was doing just then, a sudden sense of loss and abandonment seeping in through the cracks in her reasoning, a sharp grief at having, as was her wont, so deeply misunderstood things. But there you have it; her day was wrecked.
Julie sat at a window booth in the Flying J, holding a mug of coffee she had no intention of drinking, trying to keep two facts in her mind at once: This was a low point, for sure, but a necessary one in order to launch her new life. She watched the women who crossed the parking lot, past the gas pumps and the display of windshield washer fluid. One of them would come sit at her table, and they would go into the bathroom together.
She’d been able to do the first shots – a long needle slid into the soft flesh of her abdomen, estrogen straight to the source – herself. But this week, the final week before the embryo transfer, the shots had to go into her butt. It was a simple problem. She could not administer the shots herself. In this new town, she knew no one. She’d seen stranger ads on Craigslist than the one she posted. What was astounding was the number of women (or people claiming to be women) who responded to her ad, within minutes. She was not the only one trolling for an unconventional way to earn her keep. The surrogacy was a big score, and she almost felt sorry for these women, willing to meet a stranger at a rest stop five days in a row, for twenty bucks a pop. She’d interviewed the three most appealing candidates, and now she waited for a woman named Kayla, who would come join her at the table, then follow her into the restroom, where Julie would remove the needle from her purse, which was now bunched up against her thigh, like a small black companion animal.
I couldn’t stop laughing, which made my brother laugh, which made his mouth bleed more. I tried to stop laughing, which made me laugh even harder. He was coming out of anesthesia, with five fewer teeth than he’d had just twenty minutes before, back when the nurses had told him he looked like a movie star. He of course did not look like a movie star anymore. All six-foot eight-inches of him looked as uncontrolled as the body of a baby. His swollen head bobbed at the top of his mass, and he was confused about what to do with the blood that kept coming out of his mouth. The recovery nurse kept coming around and telling him to just wipe it away with some paper towels she had given him, but this didn’t seem a good enough option for my brother. He must have felt like he could have filled up buckets.
But that’s not really the funny part. The funny part is that there was a curtain drawn around us, and new patients kept being brought to the nearby recovery chairs. They were children, by the sounds of their voices – and in fact, I knew they were, as I’d seen them in the waiting room, when they were just scared kids, as yet un-drugged. They were all around us now, whimpering and moaning, asking their mothers where their tongues were, why they didn’t have legs anymore. Your tongue is in your mouth, the mothers assured them. You do still have legs. Still, the whimpers and the moans, the outright crying continued, and the questions. –What happened to me mama? –They sent you to dreamland so they could help your tooth. –But I didn’t dream anything, spoken as if she’d been robbed of an ice cream cone. More sobs. –Why don’t I have any legs?
The curtain enclosed my brother and me in a small circle of our own, and I couldn’t help but think it was like our own private ring in the middle of hell, and I could be amused, because I was only a visitor, and everyone' suffering seemed so exaggerated. My brother laughed again, and it was impossible to know if we were laughing for the same reason.
For years, he’d had a golf ball-sized lump on his head, between his left eye and his left ear. He was one of those big guys who wore shorts through winter. You stopped even noticing the shorts, the unusual sight of pale, exposed calves as even more snow fell onto the streets outside, jamming up traffic. But you never really stopped noticing the lump.
Then one day it was replaced by a bandage. There was a river of dried blood down the side of his face and neck, stopping at his shirt line. I wondered if he’d performed the surgery himself. He returned three books. I took them from him, trying not to look at his face. I looked at the books, and set them down as quickly as I could without being rude. There was an awful lot of blood on them.
“Umm,” I said. “I’m not sure we can accept these.”
“Why not?” he said. He didn’t mean to be threatening. He was just so large.
“There’s a bit of blood on them,” I said. “We can’t put them back in circulation.”
“Well, I didn’t do it,” he said. “I shouldn’t be held accountable for something I didn’t do.” I pictured him going at his lump with an X-ACTO knife. I looked up at his face, careful not to look accusatory, and saw the way the blood had made distinct rivulets along the contours of his jaw. It was like looking at a river from an airplane. Sort of.
“Okay then,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.” I checked in the three books, then slid them discretely into the trash bin. I covered them up with other trash, so my colleagues wouldn’t ask questions. Everything here was about maintaining credibility.
After six years, I ripped his heart out the way only a mother can. That is, I did it for his own good, as much as for mine. The boy had gotten confused. I was not his mother, after all. I was his girlfriend. I cried every time he thought he was making love to me for the last year, not that he knew it; I hid my tears from him, as a mother would. I’m not saying I didn’t play my part in things.
When the next man approached me, dressed in a three-piece suit, and told me without embarrassment or hesitation that he wanted to show me things, I felt this was only right. He was much older, and this felt right, too. I’d missed things, and it did not seem odd to me to accept the gift of exposure from an older man. It felt like a rite of passage I’d previously been denied.
On our first few dates, he made me taste things I’d never heard of, at restaurants I’d never been to. He’d traveled a lot, and told me about where the dishes had come from, what the people were like. There were a few places in particular he thought I’d like – and where he was sure I’d be liked in return. He wanted to take me to those places. We didn’t set dates or anything like that, but my future seemed imminent.
It’s hard to explain how I felt the first time I went to his home. He wasn’t expecting me. I’d looked him up in the phone book; he was old enough to have his address listed in there. I took a taxi, and a tray of baklava I’d spent the morning making. My fingers still smelled sweet, and were slightly green from grinding the pistachios. It was the first time I was doing something for him, it seemed – unless you count the times he’d come back to my bed.
The taxi let me out in front of a nursing home. I checked the address. As I approached reception, I was glad I had the baklava. A prop can be helpful in such a situation. I presented myself as a niece from out-of-town. He was not at home, and I forgot to leave the baklava.
His explanation, later: My wife has Alzheimer’s.
Ruby’s with another man now. He’s decent enough, though, says he won’t send her off to slaughter until old age has got her buckled under and made more miserable than I am now. It was a man’s promise, nothing written in the contract. That’s not the sort of thing you write into the contract. The lawyer wouldn’t of known the words.
Ruby should have been Alma’s baby, given Alma was the one with the knack for calving, was the one who spent all night on the ground with an aching back to bring Ruby into the dawn. Alma named her immediately, Ruby being the reddest Devon either of us had ever seen. But Ruby took to me, and it was just as well after Alma passed, the summer Ruby turned sixteen. At least I had someone to sit on the porch with me, and someone to bounce my ideas off of on my walk down to the pond, where Ruby would graze around me while I sat and fished for carp. I had papers showing Ruby’s line went straight back to the Mayflower.
Ruby knew I couldn’t do it alone. She watched me botch one calving after another. I had a vet out a few times, but his bills about broke me. They think just because it’s heritage you raise they can charge you more. Maybe because they know you’re sentimental, because you’ve got a breed with more intelligence than production capacity. They know you’re not a businessman. I did love my herd, but I should never have let the vet know it.
Now I have an apartment in town, and an army pension that gets me about three weeks through the month. Sometimes it’s Alma comes to sit with me by the window while I eat my Campbell’s. Sometimes it’s Ruby.
My dad was one for heroes. From an early age, he told me to be on the lookout for them, as if recognizing in someone else features that I admired might help me, in turn, embody those features. At bedtime, he read me biographies – of Helen Keller, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks – and this dull tradition, while good at putting me to sleep, probably left me with a life-long aversion to learning about anyone else’s life and deeds. I suspected, anyway, that I was an original. If anyone else held my values, I really didn’t want to hear about it. It would spoil them for me, and then I’d have to go off and find some other way to be unique, a true original.
I was thinking about my dad and his heroes the other day while I was taking a walk in the woods. I had stopped where a flooded creek crossed my path, and was looking for a way to get across it, when I noticed a small sparrow sinking very slowly. Not into the creek, but into the damp soil a few feet from its edge. I watched it for a few minutes, wondering what was causing the bird to sink, when I myself, certainly much heavier than the bird, was perfectly supported by this soil, damp as it was. Then a pair of beetles, black and red, emerged from under the corpse, skittered over top of it, and worked their way underneath it on its other side. They disappeared, and soon that side of the bird started to sink as well. I had learned about burying beetles once. They bury a corpse like this, de-feathering it and then preserving its meat with a secretion from their anuses. Then they lay their eggs nearby and stand sentry, guarding their children’s first meal from ants or other beetles. If too many larvae hatch, the mother and father may kill a few of them off, so that there will be enough food for all remaining larvae to reach maturity.
As a kid, and even now sometimes, I wished I had a brother or a sister. My dad, who was raising me alone, smiled calmly while I complained of my loneliness, and when my crying was done, assured me without any words that it was better just the two of us.
Jenny knew there was something wrong with the brain. She wasn’t supposed to say anything about it though; she was just the tech. She would send the images along, and someone else would analyze and deliver the bad news. She was sometimes glad this burden didn’t fall on her, though these silences were heavy and awkward. And this time, she said something stupid: “He’s going to be president!”
It was a total fumble. She didn’t know why she said it. This baby, if it came to term, certainly would not become president. Of the Young Retards Social Club of Oxford County, maybe. If it was lucky. But the parents knew she meant the president. And while of course they knew she was joking, they would find implicit in this joke confirmation that all was right with their baby. It might be a few days before they were hit with the truth.
“Is that a foot?” the woman asked. Jenny’s hand had moved across the woman’s belly, which bulged and shone with the hot jelly Jenny had squirted on. Jenny hadn't liked this woman at first. There was something showy about the way she'd walked in with her belly so far forward, something exaggerated. Jenny nodded.
“Honey!” The woman said, calling her husband, who'd been quietly scrutinizing the screen, to life. “Look at that perfect little foot!”
“Five toes,” Jenny said. “Five perfectly presidential toes.”
The woman pregnant with her first child sits across the break room table from her colleague who is just back to work after a hysterectomy. They eat their packed lunches and mind their own business. A third woman, much younger than either of them, comes into the room, in clothes that accentuate her girlishness, takes a seat at the table, and begins texting on her phone. An unfamiliar man, handsome, peeks into the room as if he is looking for somebody. His eyes grow large for just a moment, then he withdraws into the hallway. Each of the women knows his eyes grew large for her, for each of them knows she’s a woman in her prime. They look across the table at one another and raise their eyebrows, as if to say, “who was that?” They continue going about their own business, the first two women eating their lunches and staring at the newspapers spread between them, the third woman texting on her phone, but it feels, now, that they are doing these things together.
-is it that I can look into my own dog’s eyes every day without feeling particularly moved, but if I see another dog out in the world, when I’m without her, and it has eyes like hers, I am filled with sadness?
-is it that, although I have no particular belief about souls, if I were ever to slaughter an animal – a chicken, let’s say – I feel certain I would wait a while after the last heartbeat, against what’s customary, before I began the evisceration?
-is it that I am happiest when singing along to my favorite songs, but will only to do it when I am in complete solitude?
The Christmas Conrad finally got his Toro Power Mac 826 OTE 26, it hardly snowed. And just as it is manly to be the one going through the neighborhood blowing out the single moms, the widows, and the men throwing their backs out with shovels as their children looked on, it is decidedly unmanly to use a snow-blower to clear away the two-inch dusting over the driveway, that even Mac’s rusted Taurus down the street could have no trouble rolling out over top of. The machine stayed boxed up in the corner of his garage until the following winter, by which point, at its first appearance in the world, after eight inches fell on the city overnight – a scene which Conrad observed lazily from his bedroom window until a sudden sight jolted him awake – it was already not the latest model.
Mac had gotten the latest model. It cost more than he could probably get for his Taurus, the deathtrap he drove his family around in.
But that was not the worst of it. The worst of it was that Mac had already blown out half the street. The widows’ homes were probably already filling with the heat and smells of baking banana bread. Like Mac needed to eat any more sweets.
Conrad tore at the cardboard. He splashed a little gas on his shoe. Allison came out into the garage and tried to force a cup of coffee and a low-sugar Nutra-Grain bar on him. When the machine sprung to life, their boy, who’d followed Allison into the garage, began to wail. Allison picked the boy up and went back into the house. She didn’t need words, anymore, to chastise Conrad. Her rigid body said it all.
But his machine was alive, rattling his garage with its power. He pushed a button and waited, ready to claim his rightful banana bread, as the garage door slowly lifted.
I don’t know how I got inside this joke. Well, I guess I got inside it because I didn’t stop it right away. Now every time the man sees me (and I know he gets in my line on purpose), he talks about shrinking my head. Last time, he simply said:
“Think you can grow your hair any longer?”
“No,” I said, as I scanned his groceries one by one: chicken, white bread, Gatorade. “This is as long as it gets.”
“That’s too bad,” he said. “It’s going to need to be longer.” He clenched his fist and stretched out his arm, as if dangling a shrunken head in the empty air between us. My shrunken head.
“That is too bad, then,” I said, and continued with his groceries: Corn Flakes, canned soup, two bananas.
I can tell from all the groceries he’s bought over the years that he’s lonely. It’s unfortunate that this was the mode of ingress he finally found for us, spurred by a tabloid he uncharacteristically threw on top of his groceries on the conveyor belt, but I’m happy for him that he’s having this interaction. My boyfriend says I pity too easily. “Lucky for you,” I tell him.
But there’s really nowhere for the shrunken head thing to go. Meaning, if he brings it up again, for a fourth time, I’ll probably have to report him to my manager. Which would be such a shame, because I really am happy for his progress. I know these conversations aren’t easy for him.
Some of the girls I grew up with had moms who made them go to Harvard or Princeton so they’d meet the right kind of men. My own mom didn’t think of this; anyway, I wasn’t scholarship material.
Now my mom tells me that if I must go to a bar alone, to order the fanciest cocktail on the menu, even if I can’t afford it. How she knows I’m going to bars alone, I have no idea. Why she thinks I can get anything fancier than a whisky and coke in my rural Minnesota town, I have no idea. But I don’t take away from her the best vision she has of me: me, sitting alone on a nice leather stool, drinking something with St. Germaine and rosewater in it from a nice piece of glassware as only the wealthy men in the room look on. The wealthy men here are the pig fuckers who do plowing on the side. It’s the plow trucks that make the men around here. The men who don’t have plow trucks yet are only thinking about how to get their hands on one; these are the schemes they share with me as they sit with me at the bar. No one has ever picked up my tab, except the bartender herself, who’s embarrassed by “her men.” They don’t know any better, she says.
Like everyone, I feel sorry for my mom.
It was a turn-on. Not so much the chickens hanging upside-down in the sunlight, their glinting blood dripping onto the dirt, but the farmer moving among them, having first wiped his blade clean against his pants, and now putting his fingers to their necks to check for any remaining life. He’d remained calm even through their post-death flapping. Maria hadn’t eaten meat, not even fish, not ever. She’d come here thinking she’d despise this man, that she’d get the photos she needed then be gone. Her best friend, who had PETA sympathies, thought she should use her access to sabotage the slaughter. Maria had thought she might. Not this morning, when she set out resolved to fulfill her assignment, but when her editor had first given her the assignment. She’d thought, for a few days, that she might sneak off and set the livestock free. At night, the fantasy kept her awake with giddiness.
He didn’t do the large animals himself, he told her, as there were laws against it. Though he wanted to. He hated how stressed out they were when he loaded them onto the truck. He thought he could save them that anxiety. “And who doesn’t want to die right where they were born?” he asked her. Maria felt a sudden loss. Every place she’d lived belonged to someone else now. She was currently renting a room from the owner of the grocery store, and she tried to come and go from his house without being heard. She slept with her bedroom door locked. The farmer had grown up here, born on the land he’d since inherited from his parents. Maybe there were reasons she bounced along like this. Maybe the farmer was able to do the necessary things that she could not.
The red red blood against the white white feathers was beautiful.
The café was on a block with a candy shop and a glass-cutting business. Greta passed the café, on average, four times a day – as she first walked to work, then walked home to have her lunch, then back to work, then home again. Often, she stopped in for a morning cup of coffee. For years, the café had been run by a man in his fifties who was pleasant enough, if a bit aloof. He was the owner, and Greta assumed that while he was preparing her cup of coffee, he was also thinking about firing the accountant, or repainting the outside of the café, or perhaps wondering if it was yet time to call the exterminator (another cockroach had scurried about when he lifted one of the shiny black bags of bulk beans off a stack of pallets in the back room). She saw this: he was having thoughts. This lack of solicitude may have been what kept her coming back to this particular café, that coupled with its convenience. But there was another café closer to her work that served better coffee, so the lack of solicitude must have played its part.
The morning after Christmas, Greta stopped in on her way to work, unaware of how much she was looking forward to this transaction, which would be such a relief from all the others: no false cheer, no questions about how her holiday had been, who she had spent it with, etc. But there was a different man behind the counter. He had long blond hair, and couldn’t have been more than twenty-two. He grinned at her in a way that made her feel too old. He didn’t ask her about her holiday, but even the way he asked what he could do for her felt like an intrusion. She wished he would look away.
For several days, she avoided the café. She was busy at work, and did not walk home until well after eight, at which point the café was dark and locked. On the fourth day she decided she was being ridiculous, and went in for her morning cup of coffee. The young man gave her the same feeling, that he was seeing her naked. She left quickly, without adding cream or sugar to her coffee. She’d never been able to drink it black, so she dropped it into a trashcan on the next block. As she heard its weight thunk against the bottom of the can, she realized she should have offered it to one of the homeless people she would pass a little closer to work.
When she walked home that evening, at a normal hour, under the just-fallen blackness of the winter sky, she saw that the lights were still on in the café, though the shops next door were closed in darkness. The bright glow inside the café created a kind of stage, and her eyes were drawn to it as she walked down the opposite side of the street. The chairs were up on top of the tables, and she stopped to appreciate this quiet scene, which seemed almost private, like she was seeing behind a curtain. She became aware that it had started snowing.
As Greta stood there looking at the restful scene, the young man emerged from behind the tables, pushing a mop. He was shirtless, his belt bunching his pants up around his narrow waist. She could see his pectorals responding to the pushing and pulling of the mop. He looked up from his work and grinned out toward the street, as if at her. But could he really see her? How could he? She dropped her head, and rushed toward home.