Browsing Tag

fiction fridays

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Pay Me In Attention

November 27, 2020

By Francesca Louise Grossman

My eyes are too far apart. My skin isn’t rosy or olive, the two options on the online makeup matching quiz. My hair is mid-length and curly. Sometimes frizzy, but I can usually get that under control with some of the expensive hair gel I steal from my mom. My lips are thin. My eyebrows aren’t thick enough. My lashes are nubs. 

My thighs do not gap.

I stand in front of the mirror in my attic bedroom and look at myself. My mother says at sixteen this is the best I’ll ever look, so I should cherish it, but if she’s right I might as well shoot myself now. Thankfully she’s not right about most things. Except the hair gel. 

If only I were pretty. It’s such a lame thing to think, but I can’t help thinking it. If I were pretty, I would be able to walk down the halls in school without slouching. I would be able to raise my hand in class without worrying that my classmates will see my pocked face. I would be able to get my best friend to fall in love with me instead of treating me like a friend with benefits. 

But I’m not pretty. And I know that. And so does he.

I hear my phone buzz. I scan the room and zero in on a pile of sheets on the floor from when I kicked them off last night in the heat. Summer is so gross in New England, and my parents still haven’t put in central AC in our house. They say I can use a window unit if I want to go back down to my old room on the second floor, but I set up my stuff in the attic three months ago and no way I’m moving back downstairs. For now I will fry. 

It’s worth it to be two whole floors away from my parents. They aren’t terrible, but it’s too hard being an only child. Why they stopped at one is anyone’s guess because my mother’s suffocation is enough for at least three daughters.

I shake out the sheet and my phone bounces on my makeshift rug, a bunch of beach towels laid out on the floor because my mother said I was not to bring my shag rug from my old room up into the dusty unfinished attic. I scramble to pick it up. 

Where are you? It’s my best friend, Walter, the very same one with the benefits. We have to go to Annemarie’s party!!!! 

Last thing I want to do. I love hanging with Walter alone, just the two of us, but as soon as we’re around other people, he forgets I’m alive. 

When? 

Tonight!  

I’d so much rather just hang with Walter at home. 

Ugh, I text.

Shut up you’re coming

You’ll owe me 

The text lingers. 

Like a party would kill you, he adds.

It might 

Crystal

OK fine what time? 

9:30. i’ll come get u 

Fine

I throw the phone onto my bed, an old cot that my mother put up in the attic for when my cousins come for Christmas. It’s covered with some couch cushions from a springless loveseat that’s pushed in the corner.

 

I go back to the mirror, turning this way and that, trying to ignore the pimples that have ravaged my cheeks, squeezing my stomach to approximate flatness, trying to see myself as maybe a sixteen year old boy could see me if I could just look a little bit better. 

Maybe working out would help. Maybe not. 

 The truth is I actually don’t really care about most of the sixteen year old boys who might see me. I only care about one. I’m as cheesy as the 80’s movies my mom makes me watch with her when I’m sick and can’t refuse. I am desperately in love with Walter, and I have been all my life. It ripped my heart out when he told me he didn’t feel the same way about me.

It wasn’t long ago. A few weeks. I thought things were going well. I thought we were both on the same page. We had been hooking up for a couple of months, nothing major, making out in his room or my attic. He had his hand up my shirt. I was sitting on his lap. And then I made the mistake. 

He was kissing my neck, making his way up to my ear. His palm lay flat on my boob, like he was going to squeeze but was waiting for something. He stopped, took a breath and looked at me. For a minute neither of us spoke. Then he smiled, kissing my nose. 

“I love you,” I said. It slipped out. 

Walter coughed. In my face. He coughed in my face and I swear he laughed, just a little. 

“Crystal, you know what you mean to me,” he said. 

“What do I mean to you?” 

“Don’t do this, don’t screw with this, you’re my best friend.” 

“But that’s it,” I didn’t want to say it, but I couldn’t help myself. He was still so close to my face, his hand was still up my shirt. I could feel myself starting to sweat. 

“I don’t want to ruin what we have,” he said. 

“Which is what?”

Walter took his hand from my chest and scooted up to the top of the bed. He ran that very same hand through his hair and looked at the ceiling. 

“I’m sorry Crystal, I just don’t feel that way about you.” 

I should have been mad. I should have yelled at him for taking advantage of the situation, told him I wasn’t an object he could play with. I should have thrown him out. But this wasn’t just some guy. This was Walter. He was my very favorite person in the world, my best friend. And he hadn’t promised me anything. 

“OK Walter,” I said. 

He took my hand. “I’m sorry.” 

Me too. I thought, but this time I kept my mouth shut.

Later that night, after Walter had gone home, I lay in my cot staring at the ceiling. What would I have to do to get Walter to feel the way I did? What would it take to make him see me like that? How could I make a change?

 

That was weeks ago, but I feel the same. Rejected. The next morning, I do my face for school. I put as much foundation on as I can, slathering concealer over the hot red bumps that cover my cheeks. I line my lips with a brownish mauve, dabbing a little gloss in the center as the YouTubers have taught me. I line my eyes in black flicking it out a little from the corner of each eye. I brush on mascara and powder my whole face. Hopefully everything won’t melt off in the heat. I look ok, passable.

I go downstairs to the kitchen, walk to the pot and pour myself a cup of coffee. 

“Morning Hun,” my mom says, coming over to hug me. I don’t want to mess up my face so I pull away, something she misinterprets as me not wanting to be close to her. She thinks I hate her, which just makes me hate her. 

“When are you home today?” she asks. 

This question. If I answer it, she’ll be waiting for me, and get upset if I’m “late.” If I don’t, she’ll think I’m hiding something. 

“Text me later and I’ll tell you,” is as much as I can give her. I grab a banana from the bowl on the table, and make my way to the bus. 

 

About an hour later I’m in math. I touch the grooves on the old wooden desk. Years of teenagers have scratched the surface with points from a pencil, a protractor, a ruler, a pen. Teachers can see if we’re writing something, but they never notice us etching, slowly and silently, at the pace of a math class.

I stare at my desk to avoid looking at Walter. Watching him from the back, out of the corner of my eye, even though I know he can’t see me, I notice him squirm. I can make out his waist between the wooden slab and metal rungs that keep the chair upright. I can see how the fabric of his faded tee shirt follows the curve of his sides, grazing him, almost meeting the waist of his jeans. That inch of skin. It is so pale, and so smooth, I can imagine, without much effort, how it might feel, how it might taste.

Today Mr. Parker is talking about sines and cosines in the faint background, but my thoughts are far away from anything resembling Trig. I trace my gaze upward, landing on the back of Walter’s neck. His dark brown curls reach his earlobes and I wonder if they tickle him. I’m jealous of his hair for getting to be so close. 

The bell rings. Mr. Parker looks directly at me as he says, “We’ll have a quiz on this on Monday.” His look suggests he knows I wasn’t paying attention. I hide behind my hair, and

gather my graph paper, completely blank, following  the herd of sophomores out of the classroom. 

I squeeze past kids clogging the hallway, stumbling, and there he is. I tuck my hair behind my ear and smile. My heart beats too fast. My hands get too sweaty. This is my best friend. I know him. He knows me. I don’t understand why my insides don’t know this. I have to be cool. 

“Hey Crys.” 

He waited for me. 

“Hey Walter,” I say, and I can’t help it, my stomach flutters. I have told myself a million times to let it go. But look at that hair, those eyes, his smooth cheeks. 

Truth is, I’m pretty sure he loves me too. He just won’t admit it. I’m the one he calls when he needs a pep talk. I’m the one he texts to go out when his parents are fighting. I’m the one who knows he’s afraid of the dark, and sleeps with the TV on. 

“Wanna walk me home?” he asks.

My pulse speeds and I nod, my voice failing me. This happens all the time. My brain forgets. It makes new realities that I believe. 

Walter hooks his arm through mine. It’s almost summer and our arms are bare. A shiver runs up to my shoulder from where our skin touches. 

Walter leads me to the big double doors that go out behind the high school. His house is on the far side. We walk slowly, making our way to the other side of the wide set of fields, where the younger kids have their soccer games and the JV girls play field hockey in the fall. 

Walter is telling me things like the party is going to be epic, they should make a pact to drink only two beers so they don’t get out of control, should he wear jeans or shorts? but it’s the thick arm hair in the crease of his elbow that I’m focused on, so unlike my own smooth crease it feels almost pornographic. 

 

When we get to the edge of the first field, Walter pulls me towards a large oak, one side covered in a florescent green moss. He leans me up against it, taking me by the hips. Why does he do this? Doesn’t he know what this does to me? 

One of the many problems with the situation is that Walter is more than willing to fool around in secret. This should infuriate me; and I sort of wish it did, but I let it happen because, in a way, it thrills me. If we hook up in secret then I’m a secret, and if I’m a secret I’m worth keeping secret. Right? Could that be a good thing? 

I wish that I believed that. I wish that were true. But I think Walter wants to hook up with me when we’re alone in the woods because he doesn’t want anyone to see us. That kind of secret is not the nice kind. 

Walter puts a palm on my shoulder. Our chests brush up against each other. Sparks fly up my leg and land between them, but I don’t flinch. I don’t want anything to stop what is about to happen. 

“Should I stop?” Walter asks, trailing one finger along my collar bone. 

“Yes, no, yes, stop,” I answer, even though I know in my mind this is all crazytown. Teenage boys are obsessed with sex, my mother would tell me, it doesn’t mean to them what it means to you. Be careful with your heart, Crystal. 

 

He looks at my mouth and I can’t look away. The small woods are quiet. I can barely hear school letting out through the trees. 

I’m aware of how I must seem to him at this moment, sweat pouring down my back, the sides of my head wet behind my ears. My foundation must be dripping down my face in globs. I am not a polished girl. I know girls like that, of course, who somehow never sweat, whose shirts are never wrinkled and whose hair is never mussed. Walter could have any of them. He could have anyone. But right now he’s here with me, and that has to count for something. I glance back at school. It seems so far away, a canopy of trees guarding us against all of the possible teenage eyes and gossiping mouths. 

A soccer ball comes bounding through the trees and hits Walter in the leg, dissolving our sun dappled moment. A freshman comes jogging to retrieve the ball and stops short when he sees us. He lifts his eyebrows, waits a beat and winks. Walter stands up and passes the ball back to him. “Nothing to see here,” he says. 

“Thanks, man,” the kid replies, chuckling to himself as he jogs back to the field.

The moment lost, we walk to Walter’s house, hand in hand to the basement entrance and into his room. His space is totally private, he took it over when his brother moved out. 

“You’re still up for hanging later tonight?” I ask him.

“Yes! Annemarie’s, it’ll be epic” he says, and he kisses me on the forehead. Epic. Awesome. Forehead. 

I take Walter’s hand. It’s so big, my fingers fit so nicely inside it. How does he not see how perfect this is? 

 I look at him. Walter dresses like a typical parking lot boy, low-slug jeans, tee shirts; in the winter a cracked leather jacket he inherited from his older brother. He wears faded black converse, low tops. When he smokes, which is not as often as people might think, he lifts his face towards the sky like he is praying. 

Walter walks like he carries a huge weight on his shoulders. He’s tall, almost six foot two, and he stoops, but not too much, just enough to remain mysterious. His hair falls delicately over his hazel eyes and I love nothing more than pushing the shock of it back off his forehead with the palm of my hand. Without the bangs in his face, Walter looks younger, fresh, maybe even innocent. His long black lashes are the envy of everyone, myself included. 

Once we toss our backpacks on the floor I pick up the book on his nightstand and finger through the pages. The cover of the book is ripped off so I can’t tell what it is. 

“What’s this?” I ask.

“It’s silly,” Walter says. 

“Is it for school?” I flop back on his bed, lying face up at the ceiling, turning the book over in my hands. 

“No.” He swipes it from me and tucks it in the back pocket of his jeans. The pages re-form their ripples, like they belong there. 

“What is it?” I lunge for him and Walter shimmies out of the way, arching his back away from me. I dive onto him and grab the book out of his pocket. The corner of his grey fitted sheet comes loose. 

“It’s embarrassing,” he says, flushed. “It’s nothing. It’s a book.”

“What book, asshole?” Does he think I’m not smart enough for it?

“It’s a bunch of short stories. Raymond Carver. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Oh come on.” I roll my eyes, though secretly I’m swooning.

“It’s good, I promise,” he says. 

This is one of the bazillion things I love about Walter. His mushy side. Most people don’t see it. They see a brooding bad boy with a wallet chain. But I know the real him. The deep one. The one with the soft palms. The one who reads love stories. The one who pays attention. 

 

“Look, don’t make fun of me. It’s great. It’s not what it sounds like.” He smiles. 

I grab the book from his pocket. It’s ripped up on the edges. I put it up to my nose and smell it, the thin paper scent going directly to my head. It smells like the library and cardboard and laundry detergent. And Walter. 

I put the book softly down on the bed and look up. Walter sports a sheepish grin but I can tell he isn’t really that embarrassed. 

He reaches for me and pulls me towards him. Our bodies align front to front. 

“What do we talk about, then?” I ask. 

“When?”

“When we talk about love?” 

“Crystal, come on,” he says. 

We have talked about this. I know. But I know he must feel it too. He has to. And my mind gets all muddled up between what happens and what he says. 

“I know. Don’t worry,” I say, even though I don’t mean it. 

“OK.” 

My mother texts me:

What time will you be home?

What do you want for dinner?

Crystal?

Hello?

Call me. 

“Ugh, it’s my mom, I have to go,” I say and look around for my shoes. 

“You’re coming with me tonight, though, right?” Walter asks and I sigh. I know what will happen at this party. I will go with Walter, he will stand by me until Annemarie or one of her swan-like friends walks by with their long necks and big boobs and bouncy hair and then he will leave me in the dust. I’ll know no one else there, and I’ll have to call an Uber to get home before midnight. 

“Yeah, alright, I’ll go.” 

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I can make him see me like he sees the swans. I can try, can’t I?

After dinner with my parents, I run up to the bathroom and lock myself in. I shave my legs, I scrub my face, I wash my hair with coconut shampoo. I do my face, slick my hair with gel, pick my outfit, spray perfume. I avoid the mirror, hoping that my imagination of what I could look like will catapult me into a reality in which I do. I pull on my blue halter top, tuck my racerback bra in so the straps don’t show. I put on cutoffs, ones that barely cover my butt cheeks, and I tie a sweatshirt around my waist to cover the shorts until I’m outside. As I run down the stairs to meet Walter, I catch a glimpse of myself in the windowpane. I look good. Not Annemarie good, maybe not even her swans good, but good enough for me. 

 

Walter picks me up at 9pm, which my mother thinks is “an outrageous time to go out.” He beeps the horn. 

“Boys should ring the doorbell,” she says. 

“It’s just Walter,” I say. 

“He’s a boy, right?” My mother is typing on her laptop, but his eyebrows lift up and over the screen. “I know it’s not PC for me to say,” she starts, “but do you ever think of pulling back a little from Walter? Let him come to you?” 

“We’re just friends, Mom.”

“You never have to settle for being good enough Crystal, I hope you know that,” she says. 

“What does that mean?”

“It means, my love, that there is something to be gained from letting him wait a little, letting him want more.” 

I roll my eyes but there’s a part of me that thinks she’s probably right. I know the old he chases you in the playground because he likes you and you always want what you don’t have might be antiquated and unpopular unfeminist tropes but they’re sayings nonetheless. And there’s always some truth in a saying. “Maybe,” I say, I’ll give her a maybe. She smiles, appeased. 

 I let her kiss me on the top of the head. 

“Be safe,” she said. “Home by midnight.” 

I nod and run outside, jumping into Walter’s car before my mom can say anything else. 

“You look hot,” Walter says, and kisses me on the cheek. 

I smile. I have put myself together in the best way I know how. Something that looks effortless, but took me over an hour. 

Tonight. Maybe he will change his mind tonight. 

We get to the party, park around the corner. 

Walter looks at his phone, chuckles.

“What?” 

“Just Annemarie. Nothing,” he says. 

The air hisses out of my heart. 

We go in the back way into the kitchen, where kids are lounging on the counter and playing flip cup at the table. Walter heads to the keg, pumps and pours us a beer each, mostly foam. He hands me one. 

“Thanks,” I say, leaning into him. I want him to smell the coconut, a scent I know he loves. But I want more than that. I want him to lean in towards me and kiss me. I want him to take my hand, show this kitchen of kids that I mean something to him, that we mean something to each other. 

He does not.

Annemarie appears in the doorway, a golden fairy, one hand on the doorframe, a waterfall of bronze curls tumbling down her back. The room hushes just from her presence. Annemarie is beautiful, but it’s more than that. Her face is flawless, not one red bump, not one scar, and not one smear of cover up. She wears a low cut top, red and white polka dots. The outline of a black lace bra is clear underneath. Her shorts are low on her hips. Annemarie has a raspy, breathy voice and when she clears her throat we all wait to hear it. She always sounds like she was just laughing. Like she just finished something that took her breath away. A run, a dance party, a cigarette, sex. Somehow this evokes a sense of urgency, a sense that you should pay attention to her, before she’s off again. If I’m invisible, she’s the show.

I see the change in Walter. He is no longer easygoing. He straightens up, breathes more heavily. I can almost smell him start to sweat. 

“Hey Walter,” Annemarie breathes, and I know I’ve lost already. 

“Hey wassup,” Walter says, handing Annemarie his beer. 

“It’s new,” he says. “I’ll get another.”

“Thanks Babe,” she says, taking a sip.

“I’ll be back Crys,” Walter says and follows this breathy fairy into her backyard.  I know he will not be back. 

 It feels like my belly button bumps up against the back of my throat. I take a sip of the foam in my cup just to have something to do and it goes down the wrong tube. I cough and run to the sink, leaning my head to the faucet. I see my foundation streaming onto the plastic cups already discarded. How I could think I’d be able to keep Walter away from Annemarie is now completely beyond me. I can’t compete with someone like her. 

I put my cup on the table and wipe my chin.  I’ll walk home. I’ll be back way before midnight, and my mom will be thrilled. 

I leave through the screen door, letting it slam. 

I can see Walter and Annemarie sitting on the edge of her pool, their feet dangling into the glowing aqua water. He has a hand on the small of her back, she’s stretching, exposing her midsection. He splashes at her. She laughs in a trill. I don’t know how to trill like that. 

I’m a glutton for punishment. I know this, but I can’t look away. I sit down on the grass far enough away that they won’t see me. I stare.

Walter goes inside and gets them more beers; when he’s back they lean into each other and laugh. I see him touch the curve of her spine with one long finger. 

I lay back, I can’t watch. But I can’t leave either. I close my eyes, mortified that I thought even for a minute that Walter would choose me.

I’m not sure how it’s possible, but I fall asleep there in the grass, and don’t wake up until Walter kicks me lightly on the thigh. 

“Crystal,” he says, “Come on, it’s late,” his voice is slower than normal, like he’s dragging it through honey. 

I don’t move, and he lays down next to me. 

“Was it worth it?” I ask. 

“Annemarie?” 

“Obviously.” 

“Don’t do this,” Walter has turned so that he is facing the sky, one of his arms up and behind his head, the other resting on top of my hand in the grass. 

“Don’t,” I say, pulling away. “Someone might see us.” 

Walter sighs. 

I want to be mad. I want to shove his hand away, get up, walk home like I planned. But I can’t be mad, I can’t move. I know that I’m not his girlfriend. I know the deal. 

“I think I can hear your heartbeat,” I say. 

“Oh weird, I think I can hear yours too,” he says. “Do hearts beat louder when you drink beer?” 

I laugh, turn towards him. 

I let him choose. He could easily turn away. Or he could scooch his way up and let me listen to his heart. Or he could scooch down just a little bit and face my face. 

Our heartbeats amplify while I wait. Maybe it’s just mine. The crickets buzz and the grass is wet on my side and the beer is stale in my mouth. 

Walter touches his lips to mine, gently at first. I don’t react and he kisses me harder, pulling my face toward his with his hands. He parts my lips and kisses me more deeply. As he finds my tongue, I push him softly away, our mouths staying pressed together as our bodies part, holding on. 

“Wow,” Walter says. All I can do is nod in agreement. 

Walter places a hand on the underside of my chin. Right before our lips touch again, I feel a trickle of sweat roll down the side of my face. I pray it doesn’t end up in his mouth. If it does he doesn’t say anything. He just kisses me more. Walter’s lips are cool. And soft. They taste like ocean water mixed with malty beer and just a little bit of honey. 

I know he is doing this because he’s drunk. I know he probably kissed Annemarie this same way just a few minutes ago. I know she’s the honey I taste. I know that on Monday I will still just be the best friend, and his guy friends will be asking what it was like to be with Annemarie on Friday night. I know that I should stand up for myself, tell him he needs to choose, that this isn’t fair.  Tell him I have to protect my heart. 

 

But I don’t do any of those things. I kiss him back. I pretend that this moment is all the moments. I pray someone will see us, so that our whatever this is will be out in the world. If it is out in the world then it’s real. I imagine myself with long honey hair and a see through tee shirt.I imagine the choices I might have. We sometimes have to live in the moment in front of us. We sometimes accept second place because it is so much better than losing everything. 

Francesca Louise Grossman is a writer and writing instructor. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, The Manifest Station, Ed Week, Drunken Boat, Word Riot, and The Huffington Post among others. She runs writing retreats and workshops internationally, and leads an annual intensive workshop at The Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has a BA and MA from Stanford University and a Doctorate from Harvard University in Education. Francesca lives in Newton, MA with her husband and two children and is currently working on a memoir and a novel.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Follow Me

November 20, 2020

By Cameron L. Mitchell

She didn’t know he was such a troubled sleeper until after they moved in together.  He’d had a problem with sleepwalking for as long as he could remember, he said.  Even on the best of nights, he tossed and turned.  She slept like a rock, on the other hand, drifting off almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.  They had other differences, of course, like any other couple, but they felt hopeful, like they could overcome anything.  Before long, she couldn’t imagine her life without him, though she worried about the sleepwalking issue when he brought it up.  He made light of it, but there was an edge to his voice she didn’t trust.

At first, the incidents seemed minor, occurring only occasionally.  She’d wake alone in the early morning, figuring he was in the bathroom.  Instead, she found him asleep on the couch, and he looked surprised when she finally woke him – and unable to recall how he got there.  Another night, the blaring sound of the television woke her, hours before dawn.  She walked into the living room to find him kneeling before the screen like a child mesmerized by his favorite cartoon.  But his eyes were closed and his face was blank; she found it unsettling, the way he was clearly asleep, sitting up like that, his face set aglow by the light of the screen.  She switched the TV off but didn’t try waking him, having heard it was dangerous to disturb someone in the midst of a sleepwalking episode.  Carefully, she nudged him down to the floor, taking a pillow from the couch for his head.  The next morning, he’d returned to his place beside her in bed.  When she told him about the night before, he laughed, saying it was ok to wake him.  She would remember next time.

And there would be a next time.

There were also long periods when everything seemed fine.  He wasn’t much for spooning since he rarely stayed in the same position for long; yet, when their bodies intertwined as one, it was a treat – even if he later pushed her away, hard enough to wake her.  Sorry, he would say the next morning with that guilty look upon his face that made her think of him as a child caught doing something wrong.  It was that look of unyielding innocence that made her love him.  She loved so many things about him.  The way he quickly averted his gaze and blushed when she caught him staring at her from across the room.  The way he made her feel like more than the sum of her parts, never less.  The way he leaned on her, the way he needed her.  The way she saw herself reflected in his wide, blue eyes, dotted with specks of green and brown – she could get lost inside his ocean of delicate colors.

But were there things she missed?  In bed one night, while gazing up at the ceiling, he said a funny thing.  Do you ever wish you could be someone else?

What do you mean?

I see people on the street, on the trains, and I imagine their lives, he continued.  Their past, the way I can’t see it on their faces, whether it’s good or bad.  They aren’t dragging it around like this big, heavy piece of luggage, you know? 

She thought about it for a moment.  Maybe falling in love is like being another person.

How?

Being able to love someone, to make room for them when you weren’t sure you could, she tried to explain.

He turned to her, smiling.  How’d I get so lucky?  He kissed her on the forehead.  Soon, they fell asleep – she fell asleep, anyway.  He struggled the way he always struggled.  She now wonders why she didn’t ask more questions to see if she could pry loose those secrets he held so close.  Things might have turned out differently if she’d tried harder.

The sleepwalking episodes came to feel like games of hide-and-seek.  He’d quietly disappear from bed, and then she’d search the apartment until she found him.  They laughed about it.  But as the incidents occurred more frequently, they also got stranger.  Despite sleeping so peacefully herself, she woke one night with a gasp, turning to find him gone.  It’s like her body sensed his absence and responded before her mind was able to catch up.  She found him in the bathroom, scrubbing the floor with his toothbrush.  He pulled away from her touch, mumbling in protest.  She gripped his face with both hands, urging him to stop.  No, he insisted.  Not until it’s done.  With more determination than she’d ever seen in him while awake, he continued scrubbing, getting down between each tile to clean the dirt away.  She eventually gave up, returning to bed without him.  The next morning, there he was by her side, smiling.  She told him about the scrubbing, and he laughed at the absurdity of it all.  They laughed together until it almost felt ok.    

Another time, she couldn’t find him anywhere.  Again, she woke with a start, keenly aware that the weight of his body beside her was gone.  Throughout their apartment she walked, calling his name.  He wasn’t standing in the dark living room corner like last time, nor was he sitting on the cold bathroom floor, scrubbing away.  When she pulled the shower curtain back, he wasn’t there either.  Back to the bedroom, she checked the closet, she checked under the bed – nothing, nowhere.  Roaming back and forth through the apartment, she started panicking.

And then a small sound came from the kitchen, a rustling that might have been a mouse beneath the sink.  She raced in and pulled the cabinet doors open.  There he was, crammed inside.  She yelled for him to wake up and started tugging at him when he wouldn’t.  She gripped his shoulders, yanking until she finally pulled him out.  He hit the floor with a heavy thud, waking immediately.  Again? he asked, startled.   

Again, she answered.

Huddled together on the floor, they soon broke into laughter, marveling over the fact that he’d somehow managed to fit himself inside such a small, cramped space.  She carefully checked him over, running her hands across his chest, his back, his arms – it didn’t seem like he’d gotten anything hazardous on him from all the cleaning products and insect sprays.  She found a few scratches on his back, but nothing else.  Still, he went off to shower, just in case.  She went back to bed.  She didn’t fall asleep again until he returned to his place beside her, his hair damp, his skin warm.  Even then, it took her much longer than usual.  She was beginning to understand what it felt like to be a troubled sleeper.

Not as troubled as him, of course.  With the sleepwalking episodes escalating, so were the nightmares that often accompanied them, though he claimed he couldn’t remember the dreams at all.  He said he’d never been able to remember his dreams, which struck her as odd.  She recalled her dreams in such vivid detail she sometimes wasn’t sure if something had really happened or if it had just been a dream.  This was made worse by the fact that her dreams were so dull.  If they were more outlandish, it’d be easier to distinguish them from reality.  But most of her dreams involved everyday events, like maneuvering through passengers while riding the train to work – or just being at work in general, warming her lunch up in the staff break room.  His dreams were different.  Dark and terrifying, they left him sweaty and shaking, but he could never recount anything beyond the vaguest of details.  Someone after me, he might say.  Or something from his childhood, a period of time he never spoke of, though she gathered clues here and there – something about a father who hit, something about a mother who hid.  She had her theories, but he never offered any confirmations or denials.    

The two of them laughed together less and less.  More sleepwalking, more nightmares, all occurring more frequently.  With each incident, it became clearer that something was happening.  Something big, she felt sure.  He seemed lost and only half-present most of the time, desperate to find something – solace, perhaps, or maybe just a good night of sleep.

You know me better than anyone, he said in bed one night, staring up at the ceiling like he could see something she couldn’t.  But what does that mean?  Does anyone ever really know someone else?  Can they see through all the bullshit, deep inside another person’s heart?   

He sounded angry.  His questions were big, and she didn’t have answers.  She didn’t think anyone would.

I wish you could know some things, he continued.  Things about me.

What things? she said, her voice cracking.

Nothing, he moaned, covering his face with both hands.  It’s no use.   

He was so frantic and upset.  She tried soothing him, but she feared this not knowing that he spoke of – she feared he was right.  There might be things they couldn’t overcome no matter how well they worked together.

As he got worse, so did her dreams.  They became nightmares, haunting her long after they ended, ruining her once peaceful slumber.  He appeared regularly, always at a distance.  In one dream, she was lost in some dark, cavernous place, dusty and devoid of life, the air thick and stifling.  All was deadly quiet.  When he appeared, she called out to him, but he turned away, fleeing.  She followed, stumbling over rocky, uneven trails that looped around, leading nowhere – leading back to where she started, again and again.  Until she rounded one corner and almost crashed into him.  He stood before her, staring at her with dark eyes she didn’t recognize.  He held his arm out, insisting she take a look – all across his forearm, there were cuts that opened up like little mouths crying out in pain.  He clenched his fist, pushing his arm closer, like he blamed her for the wounds.  But he would never do that in real life, when he assured her she was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

In the dream he shook with anger, opening his mouth and screaming in silence – sweat dripped across his brow, the veins at his temples throbbed with each beat of his racing heart.  She woke so startled it took a few moments to catch her breath.  This time he was there beside her, twitching around in his sleep.  She pushed back a thick strand of hair that was stuck to his sweaty forehead.  She checked his arms for new cuts but found none.  Only faded scars from the self-inflicted wounds from another time, long before they met.  He’d admitted that he cut himself during a particularly rough period right after college.  He said it was something he’d never do again, explaining it was never about wanting to end his life.  It was just a release – or did he say relief?

Just then, his hand reached out in the dark and grabbed her arm, gripping it hard enough to frighten her.  The next day she’d discover a ring of bruises.  She tried pulling away, she tried to wake him, but he held tight.  For a moment, she wondered if she was still lost in her nightmare.  With one more heave, she managed to escape his grasp, stumbling back.  He remained in place, eyes closed, arm out, his hand waiting to clutch her again.  She watched his fingers slowly open and close around nothing.    

Eventually she turned away, deciding it’d be better to sleep on the couch.  The next morning, that’s where he found her.  I think I owe you an apology, he said, bending down before her.

For what?

I don’t know.  He looked confused.  He averted his gaze, catching sight of her arm.  What happened?  Where’d you get those bruises?

I don’t know, she answered.  Did he know he was the one responsible for leaving her marked?  Was he apologizing for that?  Or was he apologizing for something else, like the way he’d behaved in her dream, blaming her for all his pain?

That was ridiculous, she told herself.  He probably felt guilty for driving her out of bed in the middle of the night.  Her dreams and nightmares weren’t some shared experience.  They belonged only to her.

Always waking to find him gone left her exhausted.  One night, she chased after him in yet another dream, though the setting was different this time.  He was on the other side of a green meadow surrounded by trees.  Between them, the tall grass gently swayed in the breeze.  Birds chirped in the distance, and a pleasant, sweet scent filled the air.  The greenery surrounding them was almost too green; it gave off a faint luminescent glow, subtle but mesmerizing.  The colors of this particular dreamscape had a depth unlike anything she could find in the real world.  Lush and alive, this place was so unlike the dusty landscape of her previous dreams that she thought it symbolized a breakthrough.  It felt like the answer to a question neither one of them knew how to ask.  He casually waved at her, just like he would in real life, happy to have spotted her.  Before turning around, he waved again, beckoning her forward.    

She followed but couldn’t quite catch up.  No matter how quickly she moved, a steady, even distance stretched between them.  Out of the meadow and into the woods, he led her up a hill towards a dark hole in the ground – a cave, its opening obstructed by large rocks.  He didn’t turn back but walked on, determined to discover whatever waited inside that deep black void.  He tried pushing one of the rocks out of the way, but it wouldn’t budge.  He shoved his arm and leg inside, trying to enter, but he couldn’t quite make his body fit.  Hanging there, half of him was no longer visible.  She wanted to scream for him to stop but found herself paralyzed, unable to move or utter a single word.  Darkness filled the sky as heavy drops of rain started to fall, pelting her face and arms.  The sudden downpour washed away the vibrant colors.  She lost sight of him as the world turned black.    

She snapped awake, convinced she still had work to do.  She had to stop him.  It came as no surprise when she looked over and saw he was missing yet again.  She pushed the sheet away and jumped out of bed, ready to turn the apartment upside down to find him.  But she tripped over something before making it out of the bedroom.  Turning around, she found him lying in the floor at the bottom of the bed, half his body burrowed beneath it.  She backed up to the wall near the door, slowly dropping down until she was sitting on the floor.  Unable to stop herself, she started laughing.  The wild, maniacal sound was loud enough to wake the dead, but he remained in place, sound asleep.  Her laughter quickly gave way to a bout of uncontrollable sobbing.  The hot, wet tears falling down her face released the immense pressure that had been building inside her head.  She calmed down, pulling herself off the floor to sit on the bed.  She stared down at his leg still sticking out and felt a sudden urge to kick him, hard.  That small flicker of rage disappeared before it could grow into something dangerous.  I love you, she whispered, no matter what you decide.        

The next morning, she woke to his smiling face, hovering over her.  I had the best dream last night.

She rubbed the sleep from her eyes.  What was it about?

His gaze shifted up towards the ceiling.  I don’t know, but it was good, he said in a light, airy voice.  Like I finally figured things out.

He offered no further explanation, and she didn’t feel the need to ask for more.  A few peaceful weeks drifted by without a single sleepwalking incident.  They traded places – he slept easily, she didn’t.  The dark circles left his eyes and reappeared beneath hers.  Each night, she found it harder to sleep.  She couldn’t relax, she couldn’t let her guard down for a second.  She wouldn’t allow herself to be lulled into a false sense of hope that their troubles were over.  She felt it coming, their day of reckoning; it lingered around every corner, poisoning the air she breathed with an unmistakable sense of doom.  She imagined toxic fumes rising from the depths of that cave in her dream.  That dark place was still calling out to him, even if he seemed happier than he’d ever been.  She knew better, so she kept watch over him, waiting.

And then it happened.  He disappeared.

She knew it as soon as she woke to the emptiness beside her.  When she’d fallen asleep, he’d been there, his presence a palpable thing – all she had to do was reach out and touch him.  She could rest her hand across his chest, feeling the way it moved up and down.  With the weight of his body against the mattress, she knew he was there without having to touch him.  It was an undeniable fact.  But his sudden absence was just as absolute.  This time, she knew he was gone.  She could feel it deep down, on a cellular level – she was alone in the apartment they shared.

Still, she searched for him, just to be sure, flipping every light on along the way.  First she looked under the bed and in the closet, then she started her walk through the apartment.  He wasn’t in any of the corners he’d been in before.  She didn’t find him sitting on the bathroom floor, nor did she find him hiding in the tub.  Nothing in the kitchen either, not even in the cramped space of the cupboard.  In the hallway closet, again, nothing.  She dragged out the small step ladder to check the storage space above the closet – it was large enough to fit a body, but she didn’t find him there either.  She’d done all this before, searching for him, except this time, there was no tremor in her heart, no secret rush that came with the anticipation of finding him at last.  This time, she knew she wouldn’t find him.  The search was largely perfunctory, yet she repeated it, checking every possible space, over and over again.  It was like doing load after load of laundry and expecting something other than clean clothes at the end of each cycle.  Actually, it was worse than that since her efforts yielded nothing at all.

She collapsed across the couch, wondering what to do.  Nothing came to mind.  Her mind, in fact, was totally blank.  After a few moments, she looked over at the hallway leading to the front door.  She leapt up, rushing over.  It was locked – even the chain lock had been latched into place.  She’d been in the habit of using it ever since his sleepwalking started getting worse.  She opened the door and peeked out, but the eerie silence of the hallway felt like a warning; at this late hour, the air was different.  She didn’t belong to the world out there, yet she took a few hesitant steps forward anyway.  The floor felt icy cold against her feet.  Where are you? she whispered, calling out his name.  She knew he wouldn’t answer, just as she knew he hadn’t left this way.  With a shudder, she backed up and shut the door, locking it.  Glancing over at the kitchen, a new thought struck her, one that had never occurred to her before: the fire escape.

She ran to the kitchen, stopping at the window.  It was covered by a retractable gate that couldn’t be opened without first removing the padlock.  She pulled open the drawer where they kept an assortment of odds and ends, looking for the key.  Frantically, she yanked the drawer out, spilling its contents across the floor – the sound of everything falling and clanging together was harsh and loud, destroying the uneasy silence.  The noise made her want to run through the apartment, shattering each light fixture with a hammer and screaming until someone answered.  Instead, she searched through the mess, finally finding the key.  She unlocked the padlock, removed it, and opened the gate.  As expected, the window was still locked.  Even if it hadn’t been, the fact that she found the key proved that he hadn’t left by way of the fire escape.  Though improbable, he could have climbed out the window, reaching through the gate to put the padlock back in place, but then he wouldn’t have also been able to lock the window from the outside.  And as far as she knew, there was only one key to the padlock, which she held in her hand.

She went through the apartment checking all the windows, just to be sure.  The one in the bathroom was too small to fit through.  One of the windows in the living room had bars over the outside, and it was locked anyway; the other one held the air conditioner.  In their bedroom was the last window – the last possible means of escape.  She found it unlocked, but the screen was still in place.  She pushed the window open, seeing if she could slide the screen up.  It wouldn’t budge.  They lived on the fifth floor of a walkup, so he couldn’t have leapt from the window and survived.  Besides, she would have heard him if he had gone out the bedroom window.   

Now she knew for sure.  Somehow, he’d found a way out that couldn’t be explained.    

She spent the rest of the night in a fugue-like state.  By morning, she saw that the mess in the kitchen had been cleaned up, though she didn’t remember doing it.  She called the police – eventually, she filed a missing person’s report, but no one seemed to take her seriously, especially when she insisted that he disappeared by unnatural means.  They told her people up and left all the time, that she must have been mistaken about the chain lock being in place when she woke that night.  Despite everything that had happened, she didn’t feel sad, exactly – she felt drained.  It would take a while to muster the energy for sad.

In a follow-up, the police asked if he was suicidal.  No, she answered in a quiet, dispassionate voice, remembering the scars along his arms, how they opened up and screamed at her in a dream from what felt like so long ago.  As far as she knew, he wasn’t suicidal, but, over the sleepless nights since his disappearance, she started doubting herself more and more.  Could the chain lock have been unlatched that night?  She held the image of it locked in place like a snapshot in her mind, but with the lack of sleep and growing anxiety, the picture became distorted.  Dreams seeped into reality, days were hardly discernable from night.  When she managed a few hours of sleep here and there, the one thing she couldn’t bear was the fact that he had gone missing from her dreams as well, which quickly became as empty as her reality.  After disappearing, he never made a single appearance in any of them.  She waited for him there on the other side, hoping he would give her a sign.

During the day, she carried on, though she couldn’t manage to leave the apartment.  They’d stopped calling from work.  Friends had stopped calling too.  There was no one left – no one but the delivery boys who brought her what she needed to survive.  One can order anything, she discovered.  She ordered cases of wine, guzzling entire bottles down at night as she stumbled though the apartment, talking to him.  Talking to no one.  She took pills to fall asleep at night and drank entire pots of coffee to wake up each morning, laughing at her new routine.  She didn’t have to leave the apartment at all, though she knew things couldn’t go on like this forever.  The only thing that kept her going was the need to find him.  There was a hunger in her belly, urging her on – like a deep, bottomless hole, it swallowed everything else.  She couldn’t resist, even if she wanted to.

She studied lucid dreaming online but couldn’t make it work.  She thought of sleepwalking and how that might lead her to him, but it wasn’t something you could just force yourself to do.  She thought of him all the time, longing for the way things once were, when she slept so easily and they laughed about the things they couldn’t control.  She spread out across the living room floor, letting her mind wander.  She pictured herself walking down a long, dark tunnel, musty and damp, going on for miles and miles, twisting this way and that; long after losing track of time – walking so far that time ceased to matter – she imagined that tunnel opening up at last, revealing a light so bright it was blinding, though its warmth was strong enough to set her free.

Alone in their apartment, she imagined all sorts of things.

Out of boredom, she took the step ladder and climbed into the storage space above the hallway closet, finding that it really was big enough to fit a body.  Her body.  She crammed herself inside, pulling the doors shut to welcome the darkness.  She waited in silence and isolation, hoping to slip away to that secret place where she could find him.  In minutes or hours, she fell asleep, floating along in the darkness that held her.  Sometime later, she woke with a mind so clear it seemed like a miracle.  She had her answer at last, so she kicked the doors open, letting in the faint light.  She crawled out of that space, ready to find him.  She’d go looking for that tunnel, and that tunnel would lead her to where she needed to be.  Never had she been more certain of anything.        

A night had passed in that dark space, so she had to wait for the day to fade again to get started.  Once evening arrived, she lined up the bottles of pills he’d collected.  There were natural remedies, prescribed medication, and over-the-counter sleeping aides.  He’d tried everything.  And so would she.    

It would take the deepest, longest sleep to find him.  She needed help getting there, so she took a handful of the pills and washed them down with a glass of wine.  She had to go further this time.  She had to go further than she’d ever gone before, because he was worth it.  Being together again was worth it.    

As she started nodding off, a shadow of movement flickered across the room.  Its shape looked familiar.  Though it disappeared in an instant, she smiled anyway, feeling perfectly content.  She knew he was nearby, waiting for her to follow.   

Cameron L. Mitchell is a queer writer who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. His work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Queer South Anthology, Literary Orphans, Gravel Literary Magazine, and a few other places. He lives in New York and works in archives at Columbia University. Find him on Twitter: @CameronLMitchel

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Upcoming events with Jen

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

AND HERE WE ARE AGAIN, DANGLING

November 6, 2020
his
Hi! Jen, Angela and I are thrilled to welcome you to Fiction Fridays!  On the first and third Friday of each month, we will feature fiction, so take a break from all the chaos and read a story or two as you head into the weekend. You’ll be happy you did, we’re sure of it.   TGIFF!  –Francesca

By Francesca Louise Grossman

I sit crisscross applesauce on our shag rug, balancing a cup of cold coffee on my thigh. Emily, my two-year-old, is sitting next to me on the floor eating weeks-old Cheerios she unearthed from the couch. My first thought is thank God I don’t have to get up to get her breakfast. I know in my heart this is wrong, she deserves new Cheerios at least. But Emily woke up at 4:40am this morning and my limbs are lead. I have no more energy to give and it is only 9:30 am.  

But still. In many ways, this morning is a vacation. Until my husband and son return from their church camping trip, I am off my usual incessant duty. Emily I can handle, even with her ghastly wakeup times. She is sweet, calm, often docile. She’ll watch Dora or Wonder Pets and give me thirty minutes of peace. She contrasts so drastically from my son Ethan, who, at six, has been diagnosed with ADHD and simply can’t sit still. And she exists in deep contrast to my husband, Benjamin, who hasn’t been calm one day in the twenty years I have known him.

Aside from Emily’s chewing, the house is mercifully quiet. 

I lean my head back on the couch cushion. The wonders of motherhood include being able to sleep sitting up with your eyes slightly open. 

My phone buzzes and my awake-nap is interrupted. Of course. 

“Hello, Heather, hello?” The voice sounds vaguely familiar, but honestly it could be my mother. 

“We called you before but it went straight to voicemail,” the woman continues. 

Who is this? 

“I have called Benjamin’s cell phone a number of times,” she said. 

I think it is the church lady, the woman who is running the camping weekend. Oh lord, what has Benjamin done now? 

I look at the time again and realize they should be on the bus home by now.

“What’s the problem exactly?” I put my coffee on the coffee table and heave my body up onto the couch. 

“The problem, Heather…is that your husband and your son have not returned to camp, and we have been waiting over an hour. It seems they are…missing.”  

I laugh out loud at her delivery. “Is this like a murder mystery game or something?” 

I’m not kidding. An elaborate real life player game would be right up Benjamin’s alley. Driving everyone crazy would also be. 

I can’t see her but I swear I can hear her eyes rolling. 

“Maybe it’s the reception?” I say. “Maybe you could try calling him again?”

“The reception here is fine, Heather.” She is saying my name too many times. “I’m honestly not sure what to do, the bus has to leave. Benjamin knows this.”

The church lady is right. Benjamin knows that the church trip started on 10 am on Saturday and ends on 10am on Sunday after one night of camping in the woods. 

“A full 24 hours!” he had said to Ethan, trying to convey how exciting that was. “We’ll have so much fun!” 

I remember thinking, a 24 hour break from their frenetic energy, God IS Good. 

“Well you can’t leave them there.” I say. 

I try to remember what this woman looks like. She’s the family coordinator of the church, and in my memory, she looks exactly like she should. A little plump, wavy brown hair to her chin, glasses on a chain against her very ample bosom. High mom jeans. Keds. 

“Heather, we are not planning on leaving them here. We called the police.” 

“The police?” This seems aggressive to me. “I don’t think that’s necessary. They probably just wandered off.” 

The woman (maybe her name is Janice?) sighs and I understand. 

“He was drinking?” I ask.

At first she doesn’t say anything, but after a few moments she replies. “All of the adults had some wine and beer last night,” she says. “I didn’t partake.”

“Please don’t protect him,” I say, pinching the skin between my eyes. 

Now I see that things might be as bad as she suggests. He had promised. He had said he wouldn’t even bring anything to drink. 

My mind goes from annoyed to worried to livid. I’m sure he’s just sleeping somewhere, probably with Ethan curled up in his lap. How many times am I going to have to get Benjamin out of trouble? How many times am I going to have to come save him? 

But then my stomach sours. What if they aren’t just sleeping somewhere? What if something is actually wrong? 

My palms sweat and the back of my neck erupts in goosebumps. I fume and worry simultaneously. I know this feeling. This is the feeling of being married to Benjamin. 

 

Janice sighs again. “Well, I think Benjamin had quite a lot. He was singing well after the kids and most of the adults went into their tents. I had to poke my head out twice to shush him. No one saw him this morning. No one saw either of them.” 

“Dammit. Are the police there yet?” 

“On their way.” 

“OK…”

Emily has squirmed away from me, her two year old body wriggling in between the couch and the wall. She likes to do this when she’s nervous. She must hear the frustration in my voice. 

“So when will you be here?” Janice asks. 

“Be there?”

“Yes, I’m going to stay behind. The bus is going to take the rest of the families back to the city. You need to come here to talk to the police.” 

Of course. I hadn’t really thought it through, but of course. I have no doubt that by the time I drive the hour and a half to the campsite, Benjamin and Ethan will be sipping juice boxes and catching spiders, but clearly I can’t say no. 

“OK, I’ll be there.”

“Good.” 

I pull Emily from her slot and she reacts by bowing her back and screaming. My 4:40 am brain pulses in pain and I drag her to the kitchen to grab random snacks that I’ll throw at her as we drive into the low mountains outside of Boston. She’ll sleep most of the way. I’ll do my best not to. 

When we arrive, the rain has started, the world outside of the car blurry and surreal.  I hear dogs barking up the hill. Those can’t be…police dogs?

I unstrap Emily and hike her onto my hip. Benjamin, I think, what have you done? 

I run as well as I can with a toddler on my hip up the muddy hill towards the crowd. I almost barrel into a police officer who looks more like Smokey the Bear than anyone from Law and Order. 

“Hello Ma’am, I’m Officer Bugg. You’re the wife?” 

“The mother,” I say. “And the wife. Heather Marlow.”

“We’re doing the best we can. It’s raining, which makes things harder. We’ll find them.” 

“So you think this is serious? I mean…it’s really a problem? They’re like actually missing?” 

“That’s how it looks, yes.” 

My mind spins as I recalibrate my experience. My baby is missing. Ethan!

“What can I do?” I ask and Emily starts to whine, upset I yanked her from her dreams. 

“Well. A few things. Questions. Does this happen often?” Officer Bugg asks.

Which part? I think. The part where Benjamin drinks so much that he goes off to who knows where and comes back who knows when? Or the part where he takes Ethan with him? 

“No,” I answer.

“One other question…and I have to ask. How are things with you and your husband? Would there be any reason for him to take off with your son?”

The question smacks me across the face. Things with Benjamin have not been good. They have not been anything, if I’m honest, for quite a while. He drinks, I duck out of his way until he sobers up. He makes promises, like he will not drink on the church camping trip. He lies. I forgive him. There have been periods of our relationship when this happens. But it always straightens itself out. He gets sober. Sometimes for months and months. One time it was over a year. In those times we eat breakfast together, he makes the four of us eggs and pancakes. His long hair stays tucked behind his ears. He rubs my feet, thanks me for sticking with him, tells me how much he loves me. But lately we are in a slump. A bad patch. One that has me sniffing his coffee cups in the middle of the afternoon.

“We’re fine,” I lie. 

He would never hurt me on purpose. He would never take Ethan away from me. He would never do anything more than what he always does: punish himself for the sins he believes he can’t help but make. 

I put Emily down on the ground, even though it is muddy, and let her squish the wet earth in her fists. I see Janice a few yards away but I don’t move towards her. She glares at me with what feels like the wrath of God. My head pounds and the dogs bark louder. I close my eyes. 

Benjamin. 

It took him exactly one minute to win me over at an off-campus party in our college town in upstate New York. He strode across the room towards me and I pretended not to have been watching him. His gangly frame navigated the space with such elegance. I remember thinking, that man must be a dancer. He all but sashayed in front of me, his cheeks red, his hair sweaty, and handed me a beer. He tipped his bottle and his head in my direction. 

“Benjamin Marlow,” he said. “Pleased to meet you.” 

There was something about the way he said that, like he was truly pleased, along with the smile he offered through his green squinted eyes, that made me pay attention. We danced that night in a sea of sweaty friends of friends, Benjamin’s hand holding me by the small of my back, one of my arms resting on his shoulder, my head thrown back in endless laughter. 

When he asked me to get out of there, I went. His gaze ignited something in me, a do-good midwesterner with only two boyfriends in my past. I couldn’t get enough. I didn’t want to. I still don’t. 

But sometimes…

After we had been dating for about six months Benjamin told me he had given up cocaine and hard liquor the year before we met. We were lying in bed, polka dot sheets in a mess at our feet. 

“But you still drink,” I said.

“Beer.” 

“That doesn’t count?”

He smiled and shrugged. “Seems to be OK.” He turned over so we were both facing the ceiling. 

“What made you quit?” 

“I became stupid,” he said, and dove at me, covering my questions with his mouth. 

I later learned he had crashed his car into a storefront. He spent five months in jail, did community service for eighteen. 

“I never would have forgiven myself if I hurt someone,” he said, crying. 

“Or if you hurt yourself,” I said. 

He leaned over and kissed my head and I drowned in the heat of him.

Over the years Benjamin’s addiction has been another person in our relationship. It lives next to us, always leering, waiting for Benjamin to tip his head in its direction instead of mine. I do everything I can to keep it at bay, but I am not strong enough for both of us. Especially since we had children. I love him, but I can’t always love him enough to stop his pain.

People believe that loving an addict is wrong. That it’s important to let them go, fight their own demons, live with their own bad decisions. 

“Heather? Ms. Marlow?” 

It’s clear the detective is getting annoyed with me for drifting off into my mind. This is how I think—in tangents and circles, even in stressful times—but it doesn’t seem the moment to explain.

“Yes, sorry.” 

“The dog found something.” 

I turn to see a dog in a navy blue vest racing through the trees. I don’t think, I run after him. 

“Ms. Marlow!” I hear the detective yell at me, but I don’t stop. 

“Watch the baby!” I scream to him, and I look back for a second to see her trying to climb up his leg. 

I fly through the trees behind the dog. I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, Ethan I say in my head to the beat of my feet. I slip and slide around in the muddy leaves on the forest floor. Somehow I stay upright and keep running. 

Abruptly, the dog stops. I slow down and watch him, as he sniffs at the bottom of a tree, one with a straight section of bark right at the bottom. They were here, I think. Benjamin would have led Ethan to rest here. This is a perfect resting tree. 

The dog sniffs more, takes off again. We go in the direction of the lake. 

We run to the edge of the water, the majesty of the foggy hills trying to make its way into my psyche, but all I can hear is the labored breathing of my mantra. Ethan…I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.

The dog splashes into the water and I follow, quickly waist deep in the murk. I can’t see the bottom but it feels mushy and uneven under my boots. The rain pelts the lake water around me like tiny bullet holes. The dog swims in a circle. My brain starts to understand what it means that I am in the lake with a German Shepherd barking and police stampeding and my son and my husband are missing. 

I hear a wail from somewhere that feels like the core of the world, but I realize it’s from my stomach. I have abandoned anger and have landed in full blown terror. I start to swim, and I make it a few feet before my arms and legs give out. Someone grabs me from behind and I buckle. 

They drag me out of the lake. The dog stops barking. The air falls silent. 

“What does that mean….the dog…. did he find something?” I’m pleading with the officer who dragged me out, pulling on his jacket with two hands. Another officer is behind us holding Emily, muddy in his arms. I take her, bury my head in her hair. She smells like baby shampoo and sweat. Someone has wrapped a wool blanket around her, and now they lay one on my shoulders as well.

  “It doesn’t mean anything. It ran cold. The rain makes it hard,” the officer says. 

I squeeze my baby tighter and shut my eyes. In a million years I will never forgive Benjamin for this. I will never let him back into my house. And if the lord in heaven keeps Ethan alive, I’ll spend the rest of my life serving only him. 

I hug my daughter, as if squeezing her compensates for me allowing my son to go missing. 

“Mama,” I hear, and squeeze Emily. “I know you’re cold baby.” But I look at her, and she has fallen asleep on my shoulder. 

“Heather, we should go back, the dogs will keep going if they can…” Detective Bugg is talking, but I’m not listening. 

“Mama,” I hear it again. Quiet, a breeze of a word.

“Shh, wait, do you hear that?” I ask. I put a hand on the detective’s arm to quiet him. 

“Hear what?” 

I shift Emily to my other side and listen into the air. Are the trees mocking me? Am I starting to hallucinate? 

“Mama?” 

No, that’s real. I can hear that. It is not in my head. I turn, scanning the crooked forest. The rain blurs the trees in front of me, but the voice is clear. “Mama!”

A small square of yellow pokes out behind a pile of brush about fifty feet from us. Ethan? I stumble toward the yellow square and it moves, showing me a little more of a t-shirt I know well. I have washed this t-shirt a thousand times. 

“Ethan!” I scream and sprint towards the brush, Emilly bouncing against my shoulder. Ethan! He’s there, he’s alive. Oh thank God. I’m going to kill Benjamin. 

I skid into the wet leaves and hook myself around my baby boy, wet and shivering. I kiss his head and open my blanket, wrapping the three of us into our own world, as things should be. 

“Oh Ethan baby, I’m so happy to see you.” I hug him until he winces. I lighten up. 

“Honey where were you? Where’s Daddy?” 

“He saved me,” Ethan says. 

“Saved you from what?” 

Ethan is small, but not too small to explain things. 

“Saved you from what, baby?” I ask again. 

He starts one of those endless sentences little kids say. “There was a monster and it was chasing us last night through the forest and we came here and hid but I slipped and fell into the lake and he saved me from the lake.” 

Ethan can’t swim. Benjamin can’t swim much either. 

The officer comes up behind me, squats to our level.  

“Good to see you buddy. Let’s get you guys all warmed up and checked out,” he says, putting a hand on my back. 

“But what about my… he could be…” I scoop my baby boy into my arms and stand up, both of my children velcroed to my skin. 

“We’ll keep looking.” 

We walk back to the campsite very slowly because I carry both my children, Emily sleeping soundly, Ethan coughing lightly. 

“Ethan,” I ask again. “Where’s Daddy now?” 

 “Maybe he’s fighting the thing.”

It takes much longer to get back than it took to get there—the weight of the kids, the mud caked into my boots, and the fear. The fear that Benjamin is gone. 

I want to kick myself. I let my guard down. Maybe I just love him too much. The problem with loving someone who disappears all the time is not that they let you down, it’s that you let yourself down. Every single time you think it’s over, it has just begun. It doesn’t matter how healthy they become, how self-righteous, how strong. It doesn’t even matter if you believe them. It’s what it does to you to love something that isn’t true. That’s the hardest part. When you sit there with their broken pieces talking to your broken pieces. And here we are again, dangling. 

I exhale a breath I have apparently been holding.

When we get back to camp I lie my children down inside a makeshift tent the police have raised. The EMTs want to check Ethan, so I rouse him but he won’t let go of my hand. I lie down next to him.

“Ethan, where did Daddy go?” I ask him again.

He shrugs again. He doesn’t seem scared, just confused, and I realize that’s a better state for him to be in for the moment. 

One time I found Benjamin swaying next to a canyon on one of our hikes. 

“Step back you idiot!” I called. 

“What would I do without you?” he answered, backing up, but I swear I saw a little bit of wistfulness in his eyes.

It’s hard to think that the person you’re married to would rather be dead than be with you. 

I need to focus. He saved Ethan. I believe that. Was he thinking he was a superhero or a failure? Those are Benjamin’s only two modes. Did he jump in because Ethan was really in trouble? Or did he think he’d learn to swim like a fish in the time it took for him to hit the water? Like a chick can all of a sudden fly?

My children are sleeping again. 

“He’s in a bit of shock, and has a low grade fever, we’d like to watch him at the hospital,” the EMT says, picking Ethan up and laying him on a cot. 

As if from above I see myself nod, scoop up Emily, follow the gurney into the ambulance. “Where’s my husband? I ask the air, but no one answers. 

The trip down the mountain is fast in an ambulance. Ethan is fully awake now, excited by the speed. The EMT even blares the siren for him, and Ethan beams.

“Daddy will love this story,” he says. 

We get to the hospital and I fill out paperwork. Somehow my parents are there though I don’t remember calling them. They hug me and take Emily. 

“We’ll hold onto her tonight,” they say. 

I follow Ethan into an exam room. He’s still wet, and they give him a johnny to wear while they check him. He finds it hysterical that it is a dress with no butt. He tells me again how much Daddy is going to love this. 

I check my phone incessantly. Will they call me if they find his body? Will they come tell me in person at the hospital? How do these things work?  

I jump whenever anyone enters the room, sure it is an officer, delivering the fate of our new lives. 

They want to check Ethan internally. It was stormy, things were flying around in the water, just in case. They sedate him to do an MRI, they say that’s the best way to do it. As I watch my son go under, I see the face of his father fade away from me too. 

I sit outside the MRI room to wait for my son. My parents call to tell me Emily is fine, playing with the duplos they bought her, about to have supper. Someone comes up behind me, I can feel them standing there, waiting to tell me something. A doctor. A police officer.  If I don’t turn around, it will not be true. 

I turn around. 

Benjamin stands behind me, an arms length away, like he knows I might hit him if he comes any closer. 

“Heather,” he says. 

I look at him. His clothes are rumpled and off center, his hair is slick down on one side and standing up straight on the other. His face is creased, his eyes squinting. A familiar, musky smell of last night’s alcohol wafts off of him and straight into my nostrils. But it’s his hands I focus on. They are twisting a yellow tissue around one finger, cutting off the circulation, then letting it go, wrapping it around another finger, doing the same. I know this tic. This is the tic of my husband when he is right on that edge. He’s squeezing his fingers, but he’s imagining his throat. 

“I’m so sorry,” he says. “I don’t know what happened.”

The air feels so heavy. “Yes you do,” I say. 

Benjamin nods, rocking himself back and forth on his heels, nodding with his whole body, twisting the color out of his hand. 

“We were having fun. Things were fine. And then, he went in, and I went in and I don’t know.” 

My rage boils up and over and I push Benjamin with two hands against his chest. He falls easily, like he was being held up by reeds. 

“You DO know!” I scream. “You almost killed our kid, you piece of shit!” 

I look for somewhere to go but I’m waiting for Ethan to come out of the MRI, so I can’t go far. I walk to the other side of the room, sit on an orange plastic chair, cross my legs, folding myself into the smallest ball I can. 

“You’re right Heather,” Benjamin says. 

There’s no one else in the small room, and it’s as if his voice is everywhere. 

“I know I’m right.”

The door opens and they wheel Ethan into the hallway, beckoning me to come. Benjamin tries to follow us.

“Go home Benjamin,” I say. 

He nods. 

I follow the nurses and Ethan. Ethan is OK, nothing major is broken or punctured or collapsed. I breathe smoothly for the first time in hours. 

“We’ll watch him tonight, then he can go home with you in the morning,” the doctor says. “Why don’t you go home and get some things, we can bring in a cot for you.”

I nod and somehow get myself home in a cab. 

The house is dark. 

I walk in through the garage, flipping lights as I go. I can’t remember the last time I ate anything. I see a box of granola bars open on the counter and I grab one, bite it open, scarf it down. 

“Benjamin?” I call into the silence. 

He doesn’t answer. A chill starts at the back of my neck and zips down my spine. He’s here. I can feel him here. I can smell him. I listen for the shower and hear nothing. 

I tiptoe through the house, turning on lights, my throat closing.

Please God. I can’t do this today. Please let him not have done this. 

Every step of the staircase amplifies my worry and also my fury. No Benjamin, don’t. But I’ll understand. The two truths that eat at me always. I’ll be lost if he kills himself and I’ll also be relieved. I have never said this aloud before, but it is the truth. 

I reach the top of the stairs and it’s silent. Oh Benjamin. I tiptoe down the carpeted hallway, leaning against the wall, sliding towards our open door. The door would be closed, if he…wouldn’t it? 

I find him on the floor of our bedroom, sitting with his back against the bed. 

“Heather…” he slurs when I walk in. 

Somehow in the hour since he’s come home, he has gotten fall-down drunk again. I wonder if he was drunk at the hospital and I just didn’t see it. 

“Heather…” 

I hate hearing my name in his mouth when he’s like this. I can’t reason with him now. It’s not worth the fight we will have, my throat that will be raw from crying and yelling. Most likely he will remember none of it. 

“Go to bed Benjamin,” I say, shoving some clothes and my pills into an overnight bag. A hairbrush. One less thing to deal with, I hear my mind saying, and I am so ashamed. 

He looks at me, his eyes bloodshot, his face blotchy. He has not showered. The smell of murky lake mixes with the stench of sweaty scotch and it’s enough to make me gag. 

“I’ll never forgive myself Heather,” he says, and he’s crying now, his face crumbling into a mask of despair I have seen so many times before. 

I can’t go to him and hug his head to my chest like he’s my child. I have an actual child to take care of. I can’t always save him. 

“I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive you either,” I say. 

He reaches out a hand and I know he expects me to grab it. I know that when I leave, he might not be able to pull himself out of this. I walk by his outstretched arm anyway.

I pack a small bag for Ethan and grab my phone charger from the hallway outside our room. I hear the whimpering from the bedroom but I keep going down the stairs. I love him and I hate him. I want him to be OK and I want him to drink himself to death right there on the rug. 

I go to the garage. My van is still in the woods somewhere, I realize. I go back in and get Benjamin’s keys, listening for something major. A yell or maybe even a shot, but the air is silent. He’s probably sleeping, drooling onto the rug.

I climb into Benjamin’s 80’s Volvo, a car that should have died long ago but somehow keeps on. I take a breath and it smells like my whole past. Peppermint gum, sunflower seeds, scotch, beer, cigarettes, air freshener, tulips, pine, babies, cheerios, construction paper, glue. I feel him around me, his strong arms hugging me from behind, resting his chin on my head. It always hurt a little when he did that. 

I could get out of the car. I could go upstairs and fold myself into Benjamin’s body, rub his back, help him throw up. I could promise him things I don’t believe. 

I sit in silence for what seems like a very long time. 

Eventually I turn on the ignition and pull slowly out of the garage. I have someone else to take care of. 

Francesca Louise Grossman is a writer and writing instructor. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, The Manifest Station, Ed Week, Drunken Boat, Word Riot, and The Huffington Post among others. She runs writing retreats and workshops internationally, and leads an annual intensive workshop at The Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has a BA and MA from Stanford University and a Doctorate from Harvard University in Education. She has written an acclaimed instructional manual: Writing Workshop; How to Create a Culture of Useful Feedback that is used in universities and workshops all over the world. Francesca lives in Newton, MA with her husband and two children and is currently working on a memoir and a novel. Francesca is an editor at The ManifestStation.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Upcoming events with Jen

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Gravel

November 6, 2020
manya

Hi! Jen, Angela and I are thrilled to welcome you to Fiction Fridays!  On the first and third Friday of each month, we will feature fiction, so take a break from all the chaos and read a story or two as you head into the weekend. You’ll be happy you did, we’re sure of it.   TGIFF!  –Francesca

By Misty Urban

The wooden sign said Cabin Rentals. The letters had endured scorching heat, thunderous rainstorms, insect swarms, and the relentless bore of the salt breeze, yet there they stood, a stubborn etching, a well-worn shrine. The building showed quiet neglect. Planks of siding sagged into one another, furred with lichen and warped with moisture. The screen door hung aslant, large slashes tearing the mesh. Faded oaks trailed gobbets of Spanish moss over the toothed wooden shingles of the roof, gracious swag of eaves cupping the flat grey bowl of sky. Before, this had always seemed comfortable, a refuge. Now it was tired.

As she grasped her hand along the wooden rail of the stairs Manya felt a hard, dry splinter pierce her palm. She tugged at the projecting end and it broke, leaving a dark needle tucked beneath her skin.

Inside, the room smelled of seaweed, dark and salt-sticky. Out the window, small green brackenish things poked through dirty white sand.

Manya put the jagged splinter in the pocket of her jeans, smoothed her thumb over the reddening wound. “Hello?”

Maps tracing trail routes dripped from the walls of the rental office. Manya’s boots scuffed the dirty floor. Open brochures advertised prices for cabins and primitive sites. Firewood: four dollars for a bundle of finger-thin sticks. Across the street, Tuesdays and Thursdays, meetings for nature walks led by rangers from the state park. Manya knew them, eager and trained, their pressed brown uniforms with the Florida Park Service patch on the sleeve, a cross between a military rank and a Boy Scout badge. She studied canoe rental prices, restrictions on burning, a guide to the area’s venomous snakes. The small silver dome of a bell stared at her beside the cash register. The plunger made a useless click.

The woman who emerged from the back room had a robust glow that made the place seem quaint rather than shabby. Her cinnamon hair showed a margin of embarrassed blonde at the part. A cotton button-down shirt over a tight tank top, she had the sunburned look of a healthy, athletic woman who had never learned how to use cosmetics but slapped them on now as a barricade against advancing age.

Manya rubbed her stinging palm on her blue jeans. She should have put on a clean shirt. She should have combed her hair. She looked neglected, too.

“Reservation?” The woman’s voice held a rasp, from cigarettes or sea air. She glanced at the binder on the counter, flipped a page.

“Markova.” Manya placed her backpack on the floor and waited. Pages riffled. The woman’s look hit Manya on the chin, thin and narrow.

“Tourist?”

“Not anymore.” She shouldn’t need to explain this every time. The naturalization ceremony at seventeen, the tests and the solemn oath in the courthouse while the Girl Scouts dipped and swirled the flag. The university tried to charge her as an international student, though she’d lived in the country since she was five. She was tired of justifying her existence.

“Says here two adults.”

Manya smoothed her hand along the seam of her jeans. “It’s just me.”

“Same price.” She snapped open a receipt book. Manya looked at the golden wedding band on the woman’s finger. Tanned skin folded around it like protection. Beneath the metal, Manya guessed, the skin was stark white, like the underbelly of a sea-going creature that never saw light.

“The other . . . my . . .” She tried again. “He died,” Manya said.

That look again, a quick swoop, not quite to the level of Manya’s eyes. The woman’s voice dropped a pitch, thick as syrup. “You poor thing. I’m so sorry.” Her vowels opened at the end like wings. I’m so sorr-ah. The gull-eyes dipped to Manya’s left hand, bare of ring or markings. The cotton shoulders gathered in a shrug.

“Need linens?” she said, scratching the paper.

“Yes.” Manya bit her lip. She needed so many things.

“I’ll bring ‘em out before supper.” Her host tore off a receipt and held it over the plastic-capped counter. “You pore thing.”

“It was sudden,” Manya said. “No warning. Just like that.” She picked up her backpack and held the straps with both hands.

“Those are the worst,” the woman agreed. She pointed east. “Last one on the left.”

“You still have canoes for rental?”  Manya handed her cash.

“Oh, honey, there’s weather comin tonight,” the woman assured her, ringing open the cash register. “Didn’t you see that sky?”

Manya regarded the sky as she parked before the last cabin in the row and heaved open the hatchback. Sadie sailed out in a spatter of hot fur. The sheltie was just starting to lose her winter coat. She thrust her nose in the air, desperately sniffing. The sky was the color of the water was the color of the sea oats bending in the breeze. A watercolor by a troubled artist: Glowering Sky with Dog. Sadie charged into the gulf and kicked up a sheet of spray. The droplets sprang high and hung for a moment, turned slowly, then collapsed into the tide while the dog tried to bite them out of the air.

Manya had forgotten the sound of the ocean. That thrumming like an endless world-size heart, hurling the water onto the sand and then, repentant, taking it back.

The tent sat rolled in its factory sealed bag. Manya pushed it aside. They had talked, long ago, of tenting together, going deep into the woods. Interesting couples shared a hobby. Winter camping, trail camping, backwoods country wide open to just the two of them, tucked like turtles into their below-zero sleeping bag. He was a mountain boy, wind in the blood. He left the unused tent with her after that last calm discussion, when he walked down the long flight of stairs into nothing. He left everything behind.

She’d reserved the luxury cabin, the biggest they had. One broad room, a fireplace flagged with attractive grey stone, a deep couch facing the window facing the sea. A sink and more counter space than a restaurant. A door leading to the closeted bathroom, and stairs circling to the loft overhead. The smell of sawdust, motes drifting through the pine-damp air. A quiet mold on the inside of things, like regret.

Manya stood in the center of the room, falling into the forgotten pulse of the ocean. She listened for her heart, for what it was doing deep in there, but had no sense of it beating. Nobody thought about the heart and its steady work until, of course, it stopped working. She wondered who had helped him, who had come around the corner of the locker room to find him stranded on the cold tile, one hand to his gasping chest. The shut row of metal doors slanting down around them. The email sent out to everyone said he hit his head on one of the wooden benches. The coroner’s report noted the contusion, not contributing to death. She imagined his hands clenched into the fabric of his sweaty T-shirt, or perhaps covering his throat. And the person who found him thinking, oh shit, oh shit, this is the end of my nice normal day.

She wondered who had called Jeannette. His wife.

She stood yet in the center of the room, watching the clouds like a layer cake billow from west to east, when a sharp knock blew the door open. Upstairs, a thump as Sadie threw herself off the bed and slip-slid down the narrow stairs.

“Thought I’d bring em now. I got time.” The cabin keeper wore grey slacks and a pair of muddy boots.

“Oh.” Manya held out her arms for the bedsheets. The woman moved past her and set the folded items on the couch. Her eyes moved along the room, looking to see what Manya had brought to the place. Luggage, extra blankets, candles wrapped within them. Hardly any food.

“Y’all right?” Her eyes were grey, too, like the sky. An effect of living too long next to the ocean, where the wind could be cold through the winters. storms drawing the color out of everything, the idle boredom, the visitors leaving, always leaving.

“I’m all right,” Manya said.

“What was it, then?” the woman asked.

“What was what?” Manya put a hand on the stack of linens. Already they bore a fine sheen of sea salt.

“Your husband. You said it was quick.”

“Oh,” Manya said. “Aneurism. Heart.” Had she said he was her husband?

The woman put her hand on her chest, just as Manya had when she first heard the news. Checking. She’d held it there for the most of that day, skipping the class she taught, calling in sick to the testing site. She imagined Jeannette, now a widow, doing the same thing, perhaps right this moment at the wake in the funeral home, holding an arm across her chest as people filed by and collapsed against her. Tomorrow, during the funeral, there would be eulogies from astounded friends. He was so young, they would all say. He ran marathons. He had a strong heart, a many-miled heart. It should have gone on pumping in all its electro-hydraulic splendor for decades, millions more beats left in it.

From the beginning, he called Manya once in a while, late at night. At first she didn’t answer. In the messages it sounded like he was crying.

The storm hung in the sky all evening, waiting. Manya took Sadie for a walk.  She remembered more sand, more wildness, more beach, but there was only a strip of nubbly gravel shielding the water from the bristle of sea oats along the embankment. Shells and pebbles swatched the sand, a tiny crunch beneath her feet. The musty smell like a basement, moisture so thick the air was viscous. She remembered the breeze clean and sharp.

Insects grated from the trees, rising and falling like waves. The sea moved toward her and the sky away, a dappled grey tabby streaked with dust. Sadie’s hair stood straight with electricity. The thunder sounded like distant traffic, the dim row of cabin lights strung like pale bright shells along the shore. The sand was light oatmeal, shale spotted with bits of red and blue, stretching away into a moist fog. Any moment he might walk from it, arms full of driftwood for a fire, stepping from another world where his heart was still beating, a world where she had said yes.

A red, raised nimbus circled the tiny jag of wood in her palm, working its way in. He told her on their first date that he had gravel under his skin. Boyhood accident, a header over the handlebars of his bike. The road peeled layers from his hip and leg but his elbow hit first, driving small rocks deep under the epidermis. His parents, Christian Scientists, saw no need for doctors to tell them the debris was safe to stay there. It was earth-made material; the cells, living and dying, would push the foreign matter out.

But the elbow scabbed, then healed, and a bumpy, bubbly patch remained. Manya had liked the strange texture of it, the terrain of an alien planet. Skin beneath her fingers, but something else terrestrial deep beneath that. She was no biologist; she studied geophysics, the land with its features and fields and inevitable forces. She understood electromagnetics, thermometrics, the hydrology of his sweating body, the moving plates of his bones. The meteorology of their combined atmosphere, with its strange and unmeasurable currents.

Manya paused as Sadie sniffed a spot on the beach. The trees fretted, tossing up their branches. The rustling wind sounded like rain. Small leaves and bits of moss revolved through the air. The chant of the insects grew monotonal. The dog lifted her sandy muzzle and whined.

Manya grabbed a loose stick and pried at the small dome of sand. The scissored claw of a crab emerged first, then its body, upside-down. With the stick she flipped it over. It clipped to the side, leaving small mounds of sand in its trail, then paused, resting. It must have been suffocating, trapped in the small space it had fled for refuge.

He’d planned adventures for them, safaris in Africa, canoe trips down the Amazon. It was she who said they should date other people. He grew heavy in sleep, throwing his arm across her chest, pressing her deep into the blankets. His hands started to clutch. On the wall calendar he outlined in black marker the weeks she was gone for conferences or research. The gravel under his skin itched.

Jeannette was Catholic. She believed in insurance, checkups. His voice on the messages had the tone she’d heard when he called her name in his sleep. Deep in nightmares he muttered the Russian phrases he learned so he could phone her parents. Hello. How are you. I am well, thank you. May I speak to Manya? Is Manya there?

The storm broke when she was still half a mile from the cabin. The trees raged with wind and loose leaves swooped like bats. Tendrils of lightning struck and shimmered, magnified. Thunder rattled her teeth. Sadie streaked for shelter as the first cold drops fell and goosebumps blossomed on Manya’s arms. The rain whirled to meet her, blurring the world like a dusty mirror. Raindrops bounced off her shoulders, her calves, the back of her neck, places that for a long while had been touched by no hand but her own. The rain dotted her skin in frantic code.

Manya closed her eyes and lifted her face, listening to the message being tapped into her. She was alive. The ocean swelled and roared as raindrops patterned its surface. She’d forgotten how it felt, the ragged desperation of it, the joy that caught in the chest. The man she had loved was dead, and she was alive.

At the cabin, she toweled off and filled the kettle with cold water. Visiting hours were over. The room would be empty save for the chairs and flowers, the poster boards of pictures, his marathon medals and track trophies, the dried corsage from their wedding. Manya had been on a research semester in Brazil but she mailed a leaded glass cocktail set as a gift. A few weeks after the honeymoon, she received a thank-you card embossed with the wife’s new initials. Graceful handwriting expressed their gratitude for the glasses, gave their new address. Much later Manya realized neither of them drank.

And then what? His wife would go home to the house they bought together. His parents would return to their hotel and pray. Jeannette would ask her high school friends to stay with her, the same women who had been her bridesmaids. She was not the type to spend nights alone. She would press her dress for the funeral the next day, set out her shoes, put Kleenex and aspirin in her matching purse. She would stay up late weeping, or staring dry-eyed at the ceiling, into a darkness so complete it silenced the terror.

Manya built a fire and unrolled the sleeping bag on the sanded floor. The kettle boiled. She wasn’t required to fast, but she would anyway. She draped a cloth over a driftwood side table and set out her icons, her rosary, her prayerbook, the candles she had lit for him every night since the call. The air was too thick for thought. She watched the fire climb the stiff currents, bend itself in a plunging ballet.

He thought her work, her research came between them. He thought reasoned arguments would bring her back. In her family they arranged marriages, daughters matched with the nice sons of childhood friends. As mates they were kind, respectful, polite. They did not produce tempestuous declarations, tears and longings. From that first kiss outside out dorm room, the hurried embraces in the halls of her lab, she knew there was no way they fit together, him sweaty from basketball practice, her hands smelling of copper. He was a cowboy and she was Russian. They lived on different tectonic plates.

The phone on the wall rang. Manya dropped her rosary. She’d turned off her cellphone, no service. Who knew she was here?

The phone rang again, and Manya approached slowly, surprised the power had not been knocked out. She lifted the black receiver. “Hello?”

“Call for you,” the rental woman said, and Manya heard a series of clicks, then an uncertain voice, a woman’s. “Hello?”

“Jeanette?” Manya said.

“Manya?” She sounded confused. Manya imagined her looking at the phone, frowning. She’d had a tiring day and would be fuzzy-headed from weeping. “You’re at this number? I . . .” She trailed off. They never knew what to say to one another.

“How are you?” Manya whispered.

Jeannette started to cry. The sounds were quiet beneath the wind pounding the window, but Manya heard the small gasps for air. She felt a needle in her heart and wondered if that was what he had felt, except larger, a swell like the tide and then the startling burst.

“Are you coming tomorrow?” Jeanette asked between hitches.

“I hadn’t planned to,” Manya said.

A gulp, then a small high hiss, like the cry of a bird. “He would want you there.”

Manya looked at the prayer candles, the three flames dipping and dancing in the currents of air. “I’ll come if you want me,” she said.

“It’s so awful,” Jeannette sobbed. “I had to buy him underwear. I bought my husband new underwear to bury him.” That high, steady whine again. It sounded like a gale blowing in from the gulf. “His mother complained about the coffin I picked. She didn’t like the silver handles. And he—Manya, it doesn’t even look like him. They put him in so much makeup.”

Out the window Manya watched the lightning streak between the upper banks of clouds, bands of dark holding the blinding flash. Manya pictured him in his navy suit, his face old beneath the embalming, all the clever tricks applied to dead flesh. He would not look like someone either of them had known, had touched every inch of.

“Everyone keeps talking about how young he is. How sudden. Looking at him to figure out—what I did to him. What I did wrong.” Jeannette lost herself in sobbing.

In the fire a stick snapped its fingers, and Manya jumped. Outside, the trees howled and threw up their hands.

After a while, Jeannette quieted. “I found this number in his work planner.” Manya heard her hoarse breathing. “He said he was going away with a friend.”

He’d come here often with her, their getaway while she was in graduate school, he in training at the law firm. He’d proposed to her in a canoe on the river trail, the vessel rocking slightly as he knelt. The summer heat had itched her skin and tiny black flies tacked to her eyes and her sweaty neck. She closed her mouth when he asked her. The words knocking at her lips were nonsense rhymes her baba had sang to her, games she had played in the preschool of a village that no longer existed. He’d left and she’d stayed, with her lab and her St. Olga cross and her dreams in Russian, and she didn’t have to go to races or office parties or American ball games anymore.

“I come here this time every year,” Manya said. “He must have remembered.”

A long silence, while the wind whined. “He’s been calling you?” The voice tiny, spoken through a small point, far away.

Manya rubbed the raw swell of her palm over her heart. “Once or twice,” she said. “Just catching up. You know he is good—was good—at keeping in touch.”

She stumbled over the tenses. Waited for Jeannette to piece things together, catch her in the lie.

“I don’t understand any of this,” Jeannette said, her voice faint, thin, weary. “Nothing makes sense. I feel gutted.” A pause. “You should be there. For him.”

Manya looked at the red furrow in her hands. “I’ll come,” she said.

She fixed lemon tea and stoked the fire and thumbed her rosary, stroking the old beads, the weighted tassels. The thunder roared and hurled itself across the gulf to the distant lands beyond. She understood what was required. Penance. A final goodbye. Confession, witness, and absolution, so Jeannette believed things were over. Would never know she had almost lost her husband again.

Morning dawned light as a pearl. The sky held the same white tint as the sand, the sea grey as the sea oats. Manya found the crab. It had pulled its body a few inches from its hole and anchored its one claw into the sand, holding against the tide. With her foot Manya bunched sand around the carcass and wondered why no other animal had disturbed it. She couldn’t have known it was dying.

She placed the stack of linens on the plastic counter at the rental office, floral side up. The woman wore the same button-down shirt. The blonde roots showed a wider margin, already reclaiming their own. She patted the top sheet gently.

“Storm keep you awake?” she asked.

“No,” Manya said honestly.

“I guess everybody grieves different,” the woman said. Her sharp eyes fastened on Manya’s left ear.

“I found a crab on the beach last night,” Manya said at the door. She stopped and looked up at the faded map of the Florida Gulf coastline. “It had one claw.”

The woman watched her. “Stone crab,” she said, as if she could still hear the foreign accent, as if Manya knew nothing about the United States, nothing about the deep and secret workings of the earth. “That’s how they harvest them. It grows back.”

“This one won’t,” Manya said.  “It was dead this morning.”

The man’s shirt fluttered as her shoulders rolled, the ring on her finger winking. This woman wouldn’t know how the heart could swell from all that was stuffed into it, hurt and anger, guilt and neglect, growing so fat and gluttonous and engorged that its burst open. What had he thought about in those last seconds? His wife, and his lie to her? Maybe it felt like pitching headfirst over the handlebars, that fiery burn as the blood rushed everywhere, spinning weightless in a moment of space, far from the safe warm hands of prayer.

Manya didn’t have an answer. Why she had told him the date, made the reservation. Why, after all this time, she’d said yes.

A swallow-tailed kite dipped past the window, giving its lonely cry.

“It’s not something you’d wish on anybody,” the woman said.

Manya pulled the door shut behind her.

Sadie leapt into her seat in the back of the wagon and settled on the unused tent. Next to it sat the jar holding her real wedding present from Brazil: rainforest soil, for that trip they’d never taken. In five hours she would be there, file into St. Mary’s with everyone else in their quiet shades of black. There would be beautiful words, tears and flowers, solemn ritual to surround the magnificent blankness of death. Manya would stand with Jeannette next to his grave and say the words she’d owed him for a long time. They would fall the way the rain pockmarked the ocean, brief and then disappearing, bubbling like gravel under an elbow it had once been hers to kiss.

Manya turned the car north, toward the highway, toward the priest and the quiet confession. Behind her the horizon of sea stood empty, blank and still. She looked at her hand and saw that the skin of her palm had closed over the splinter, encasing it as in glass. She would carry it with her, a memory made flesh. If she could not be forgiven then at least she, too, would be marked.

Misty Urban is the author of the story collections A Lesson in Manners and The Necessaries. Recent stories have appeared in Fiction Attic, District Lit, Sweet Tree Review, Literary Mama, and from Write Out Publishing. Find her online at mistyurban.net or femmeliterate.net, a website for women in/and/of books.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Upcoming events with Jen

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND