Forcing Bowl

E.B. Vandiver

They bring him home and stare. Their quiet house. Though he says nothing, hardly cries, they are deafened. When he nurses, he twists his head wildly, latches on off-center. He stares vacantly at the pushed-up flap of Elizabeth’s bra, slowly curling and uncurling his fingers, making mewing sounds. Elizabeth can see the corner of his jaw pumping methodically as he gulps audibly, clacking his tongue. In three minutes he will fall asleep, mouth going slack, colostrum dripping from the corner, soaking Elizabeth’s gown. There are deep red marks around the nipple, bruises where his mouth has been.

 

The pregnancy had been an accident. They had stopped trying after two years, thrown away the ovulation kits and the charts and the syringes, and had separated. It was October then. She took an apartment. He stayed in the house, a bungalow with sloping floors and a rose garden and a breakfast nook. She had found the house in the real estate section, forced him to come and look at the old coal bin in the cellar, the wainscoting of the front rooms. He was an engineer; he liked the Eichlers two neighborhoods over. They bought the bungalow. The front room had four glass-paned doors, a bank of south-facing windows, and was flooded with light every hour of the day. When she was in this room, she would close her eyes and breathe, and all that she felt was heat and the brightness pushing on her eyelids. When they separated, he said he would go. She made him stay. I’ll leave, she said, and when she did she dreamed about the house. The apartment was a studio in one of the new developments off the 280. She could never remember the name of the complex when he asked—Whitecrest, or Whitehaven, or Whitelawn—and all the streets in the development began with White. Whiteridge was hers. The occupant of the apartment above had insomnia and paced the floors through the night in a long, slow, methodical circle, except when it rained, then he slept.

She took a job teaching English. Evenings, in the language school, she sat at the head of a table of Japanese executives and orchestrated endless role-plays of business meetings while the men rubbed their bloodshot eyes and laughed hopelessly. They had all left their wives and children in Tokyo to work in America. They spoke of this in passing, in the same manner that they spoke of the traffic and the smog in the valley. The greenish fluorescent light in the opposite corner of the classroom flickered, at turns gently and frantically, during each class. She mentioned it to the director, a German woman who drank Scotch and manicured her nails in her dimly lit office until the evening classes finished. The light went unrepaired.

As the fall deepened to winter, the sky thickened, a low dark blanket of clouds banked on the mountains. The heat in the apartment was sporadic. She began to take baths, water as hot as she could stand. Afterward, climbing out, her skin felt slack and loose as if she might shed it like a coat. She lay on the bed until she could breathe normally, then took a lukewarm shower and gripped the walls. Each individual drop of water seemed to pierce her skin, like needles. She bathed and showered each night, and by the time she finished there would be a message from Greg on her cell. He called nightly. He called her sweetness. His voice was casual, as if he were leaving a message for a colleague.

Elizabeth went to the house to pick up a book she had left. He had bought lobster. He poured wine. There was pâté and miniature toasts and Viognier. He took the lobsters out of their plastic bags and let them crawl over the floor, put water on to boil, and when it did he threw them in. She could hear their claws scratching the side of the pot. My god, she said, covered her ears, and when they were silent, finally, he took her hands from her ears, handed her a glass of wine, and served the lobster steaming, with asparagus, with buttered bread.

Later, in bed, she listened to a woman in the next yard speaking on the phone in Malayalam as she put up the laundry on the line. Her voice was rapid and deep. The quilt rested on Elizabeth’s hip. Greg folded it back and traced the lines of her ribs with his forefinger, the mole on her left breast. How expensive, the woman was saying. This valley drinks money. Elizabeth and Greg had honeymooned in Kerala for a month, took Malayalam lessons at the guest house in Pachallor village from a cabin boy, Saji, who had learned English from MTV. Despite the fact that Greg was fluent in French and Hungarian, that she had no language but English, she had surpassed him in Malayalam. It amused him to let her give directions in the autorickshaw, to converse with the temple guides, to order drinks during the long afternoons they played cards with the village’s American and German expatriates at the private beach, at small, tented tables. He would push up his glasses absently with his thumb and fight off a smile. The Keralans would say, No Americans even try to speak our language. Saji said, They throw out their English words like nickels we should be grateful for.

Long after they left the guest house she could still hear the fishermen chanting prayers as they cast and hauled their nets from the Pozhikkara beach across the lagoon, where the whites never went. I want to meet them, she said, on the second to last day of the visit. It had surprised her to hear her voice in her mouth. The Englishwoman, the owner, overheard and pressed her hand to Elizabeth’s neck. My dear. They think the white women are whores. Because of these Europeans who sunbathe and show their tits. She patted Elizabeth’s neck twice, gently, firmly. They would rape you. She kept boxes on all the café tables to collect money for the blind children of Kerala, and she went about now with her little key, unlocking them and folding the money into a leather pouch she wore on a chain about her neck between her two long, white, flawless braids. She seemed to float from table to table, and when she had cleaned all the boxes she felt Elizabeth still watching her, turned and winked, and began to count the money out, mouthing the arithmetic.

 

Greg said, What are you thinking about? And she said You.

That was the night she got pregnant.

 

For weeks she saw no change in her body. She looked in the mirror, expecting to see a change, but it was only herself, and then she was enormous. There was no hunger, no retching. It was nothing like she had expected. “I don’t like it,” she told him when she was six months into it. “It’s like he’s not even there.”

For nine months the baby hardly moved. After she moved back to the house, they bought a stethoscope to listen nightly to the gallop of his heartbeat, to make sure he was still alive. Greg tried to joke about it, to say the baby would be easy, a sleeper, that Elizabeth should be grateful for how smooth it was. She began to mark off the days of the calendar with a red pen, staring down the jagged crosses through the weeks and the months to the day he would arrive. She wondered if he was real. Even when she watched him flicker on the video screen, the technician’s wand pressing into her to show her his face, his feet, his hands, the baby turning to look out at them, she could not really believe he was there.

The Japanese businessmen never mentioned the pregnancy. When she entered the classroom, they would glance only at her face, briefly smile and return their attention to the blackboard, which in those days was inevitably occupied with the handwriting of the teacher before her, whom she had never met. The lessons were always on one of two topics—the present perfect or the past perfect tense—elaborated upon in a fascistic cursive, tiny and exacting, that spanned the entire length of the blackboard. The broken light flickered on and on.

 

When the contractions began, it was the pain that finally convinced her the baby was real. At first it was only a discomfort, the pain of the lungs too full, like when as a child she would swim in the lake off the thumb of the peninsula, standing waist high in the salty water, facing down a slow wave building from twenty feet off, squinting her eyes shut and sucking air, forgetting to exhale, waiting for the wave to crash over her head. As the night went on, the pain sharpened, became more urgent: pulled, peaked, subsided, and started again.

Beside her in bed, Greg’s chest rose and fell in shallow, uneven spurts. He was dreaming, muttering unintelligibly.

She began to count, like they had taught in Lamaze class. Counted the length of each wave against the inch-high neon numbers on the face of the alarm clock—six minutes apart, then five. Now six again. She thought of nothing, ticking off the neat precision of the seconds in her head, steady as a metronome, until slats of pearl-gray light fingered through the Venetian blinds. She realized she’d been counting since midnight.

Greg stirred awake.

 

The labor went on for thirty-two hours, and toward the end, just after William was born, the drugs wore off, the pain needling back as the obstetrician pushed at her belly to make the placenta give, her nails digging in.

“Goddamn it,” Elizabeth said. “Lay off,” and Greg laughed.

“Push,” the obstetrician said. “Push.”

“I’m done pushing,” Elizabeth said.

 

When she returned from the hospital, a new family had moved in next door, into the bungalow that was identical to theirs except for the color and the composition of the roof. Greg said they must be Mennonites. There seemed to be no husband. The woman and the girls wore small, white immaculate bonnets and long, pressed cotton skirts. Their faces were very plain and bright. The girls laughed often; they seemed innumerable and nearly identical. How many daughters do you think there are? she asked Greg, and he looked at her, and kept looking at her. Just two, he said.

 

The house began to seem smaller. After William fell back asleep in mid-morning, Elizabeth lay in bed beside him, her fingers resting on his sternum as it rose and fell. She could remember resting in bed with her mother, the poem she would say that had Elizabeth’s name—You lay in the crate of your last death / But were not you, not finally you. / They have stuffed her cheeks, I said; This clay hand, this mask of Elizabeth / Are not true. There were more—Dylan, Keats, were her favorites, not the confessionals, except for the Sexton poem. She had read poems instead of fairy tales or nursery rhymes. This is what Elizabeth can remember. Not her face, nothing else. When she was killed, Elizabeth was ten. The story had been in the paper, so her father stopped the paper. There was no funeral. If Elizabeth spoke her mother’s name, he turned away, made a motion with his hand. Later she realized he was crossing himself. After more women disappeared from their city, she began to see the dredge teams when she crossed the Fitzhugh Street Bridge on her way home from school. Finally a child in her class told her that someone was kidnapping and drowning women, and that her mother had been the first. Later she could not remember which of her classmates it was, not even whether it was a boy or a girl. In her memory the face of the child who told her this is merely a mouth, and the words are not audible. She has the sense of being struck in the skull, the sense of her teeth reverberating. When she crossed the bridge, she could not stop looking at the water. It was the river she had known since birth. It went on and on. The bridge traffic would roar by, blasting sheets of slush and ice, and she would raise her muffler over her face like a burka and swear and cringe, soaked. On the other side of the bridge she waited for the bus. It came just after the three o’clock lift. The two central leaves of the bridge would part from one another as if making an offering to the sky. Through the open passage, a steady line of barges and towboats, tankships, and bulk freighters folded through beneath a vast unfurling of soot. The dredgers, on the opposite bank would pause, holding their nets, their faces, too, turned toward the drawbridge, sweeping open in that way suggestive of an awakening eye. They conversed as the ships passed, their expressions muted, and when the leaves fell closed and traffic resumed, they set to work again.

 

The doorbell rings. William moves closer to her on the bed. She sets him aside in the bassinet, pulls her robe together. She is leaking milk. There are two wet, spreading spots on the front of the robe. She abandons it, stuffs pads in a nursing bra, latches the bra. The doorbell rings again. There is nothing clean. She settles on a nightdress, crumpled on the floor from last night when Greg had taken it off, the first time since the baby.

Through the glass panels that flank the front door, she can see it is one of her students, one of the businessmen. He stands with his head slightly bowed. As she opens the door, William is crying deep in the back of the house. The student’s eyes are flinty. “Go get him, it is fine.” His voice sounds raw, as if he has been sick.

William is contorted with hiccups. When she enters the room, he cries only harder, stretching out his arms, clenching and unclenching his fists. His forehead, when she presses her lips to it, smells warm and dusty. His arms wrap about her neck, he finally goes quiet, and they return together to her student. Elizabeth notices now that the student holds a box encased in purple iridescent wrapping paper, crowned with a tiny crimson bow.

“For you,” he says, extending the gift. She struggles to remember his name. “For the birth of your child. And for your time as our teacher.”

“I hope this isn’t a good-bye gift. I do plan to come back,” she said. “After the baby is a few months old.” He shrugs. He knows she will not be back. She sets William in his jumper and takes the box, turns it over and over in her hands, listening to the weight move from one end of the box to the other. It sounds like rocks rattling down a hill. Because he’s watching, waiting, she tears at the paper and they look together at the shallow glass bowl, the plastic bundles of gravel and bulbs.

“I don’t know what this is,” Elizabeth says.

He takes a fold of paper from the box, shows her the photograph on it, the trumpets of white.

“Forcing bowl,” he says. “For forcing narcissus. One tricks the flowers into blooming in winter. By keeping them in darkness, and watering. They take root in the gravel, and when they bloom, you may bring them out of darkness into the sun. They believe it is spring and they are beautiful, very white.”

She opens a bag, takes a handful of the bulbs in her hand, rubs her fingers against their rough skin. They are ugly, like shallots but darker, nothing like the picture. Their brown skins flake off onto her fingers. She tries to imagine tricking something into believing it is spring, using only water and light.

Gently she sets the box down on the coffee table. “Thank you,” she says.

“I found you by asking the director of the school. She did not want to give your address at first, but I insisted that I must thank you with a gift.”

Akio. That is his name. She remembers him. One of her first assignments for the class had been a personal essay. They were to write about an event in their lives. Most of the men wrote about their work—joining their first company, or attaining a promotion. Two men wrote about their wedding day. Akio had written about a school trip he had taken as a child to the Akita prefecture, to the sea. He described standing on the beach road outside the bus with a friend and the assistant teacher while the rest of his classmates played on the sand below. The pleasant heat of the noon sun, his hunger as he awaited their return so that they might eat on the return drive to Tokyo. Their lunches waited on the bus. Akio had watched his mother prepare his that morning: umeboshi, rice. The hunger was like an angry badger in his stomach. Below, on the cement-colored sand, the lead teacher was attempting to gather his classmates in. She seemed to be speaking rapidly, her hands making short, cutting gestures. She wore a blue kerchief that lifted and darted in the wind. The sea birds had fallen silent. The ocean pulled away from the shore, then rushed forward, and the beach below vanished, the sea like a mouth had closed over it. He was pushed onto the bus and there was a grinding noise as the motor started, the wheels squealed at the pavement, and he was thrown forward with his friend in the aisle beside him. They clung to one another. Through the windows, as the bus whined uphill, they could see, rolling slowly across the flat, churning plain of the ocean, a wave with a long white tip.

In his dreams still, since the tsunami, the sky and the sea are reversed. The clouds swimming wet at his ankles, pale and slow as belugas, the ocean above stretched shallow, too far to touch.

 

“And so it is a boy?” Akio is saying with approval. William stares at his own fingers, lifts a foot to his mouth and gums the big toe, and Elizabeth says yes, a healthy boy, a big boy, nearly nine pounds. “Motherhood becomes you,” he says. “We miss you very much as our teacher. The new one is a man. He does not have your red hair, or your mean jokes. But he is fine. We continue.”

He pours the gravel carefully into the forcing bowl, arranges the bulbs in a circle, fills a tumbler on the counter with water from the tap, demonstrates pouring around the bulbs. She stands in the doorway and watches, her hands clasped behind her back, nodding. “And see,” he says, “how the water must just touch the roots, no farther, or the bulbs will rot. And then no paperwhite. I have ruined many myself. ”

They find a flashlight, descend to the cellar. He carries the forcing bowl before him with two hands, as if he has not yet entrusted her to it. He places it on a shelf near the coal chute. William has fallen asleep in her arms, in the darkness. Akio lets the beam of the flashlight fall at some point on the floor between himself and her and William. They are only just visible to one another. “You must not forget about it,” he says.

I won’t forget,” she says.

 

A month passes. Two, and three. Time begins to seem more fluid, and at the same time intractable. She looks up from the sink of dishes and her watch has swallowed an hour, the tips of her fingers wrinkled in the lukewarm water. She wakes from an afternoon nap and it’s seven and dark outside, Greg calling to say he’s five minutes from home, what’s for dinner? She waters the forcing bowl and the bulbs remain lifeless. Each day she expects at least one of them to have broken open, but they are unchanged. One evening she finds William playing in the office with the toy box with the five small doors, his favorite. Each door has a different kind of lock, and he is trying them all, over and over, watching his hands. He catches sight of Elizabeth and stares as if she’s a stranger. “Come on,” she says, her voice full of cheer. “Let’s cook.” He turns back to the locks, shakes his head.

 

“What’s wrong?”

Greg stands over the bed, ready to leave for work, already in his suit and his face shaved clean. The clock reads 6:15. He has to leave before dawn, he says, or he sits in traffic for hours.

At the silence he sighs. “Call someone today, all right? I left you a list of the doctors on our plan. On your desk, by the laptop. You’ll call today, right?”

Elizabeth turns over, pulls the blanket up to her ear. “Right.”

Her stomach feels heavy, cold as a stone.

 

Greg decides they need a day at the seaside, to breathe the salt air. They load the trunk of the station wagon with beach towels, sun lotion, flip-flops, plastic buckets and shovels for William, a cooler loaded with Cokes and leftover chicken and potato salad.

It is Sunday morning, the highway to Santa Cruz empty of cars. They rocket up the mountain road, the sun glinting off the hood of the car. Elizabeth fiddles with the radio knob but finds only Spanish-speaking stations. Finally she switches off the volume and leans back in her seat in the silence, watching the redwoods lean toward them, swaying, as if to beckon them into the mountain, to stay.

“What do you want to do for Christmas?” he asks.

“I don’t care.”

“Why don’t we ask my parents to come out?” he says. “My mother could help out with William. Give you a break.”

“No,” Elizabeth says.

“Why not? Or,” he says, “we could go to them.”

Elizabeth shakes her head, closes her eyes. They had visited his parents just before they were married. They woke up their first morning to an ice storm. Everything not white was black, perfect chiaroscuro, the world frozen, coated, blasted bright in the sun. The roads were salted and salted and still it was three days before they could leave the house. Late in the afternoon of the first day she wandered the vast, dark rooms with Greg’s stepfather, his hand warmly tucked into the crook of her elbow, and learned the origin of the Chinese artifacts displayed in the shadowboxes on the red walls of the study, the history of the Ming dynasty, which he had studied at Harvard, his struggle to master even a tourist’s Mandarin. The drapes in the study were drawn against the setting sun, but a narrow part allowed a column of light to ease toward them as the sun emerged from a cloud. The stepfather took her chin in his hand and turned her face aside. His tongue traced the edge of her ear. She stared at a pair of Chinese slippers in a glass case on the fireplace mantel. The toes were embroidered with grinning, mustached dragons. “Do you like them?” he said. “Do you like all this? There used to be a term. Marrying up. Do people still use that term? But really, I’m only joking. It’s so obviously love. Come on, now. Smile,” he said. When she didn’t, he left. She stood in the study until the column of light narrowed and disappeared and when it was dark she went to the kitchen. Greg and his parents were drinking cava and eating from a bowl of glistening olives. Later, in bed, Greg said, “He’s essentially benign. Ignore him if you can.” Two days later, when the roads cleared, his mother drove them to the airport alone. The roads were littered with dead tree limbs that cracked beneath the tires of the SUV. The sky was low, the color of nickel.

Greg’s mother squeezed Elizabeth’s hands as they said good-bye. “We can’t wait for Saint Helena.” Their wedding, in the wine country, in the spring. Her eyes were moist. Elizabeth pretended not to notice.

At the beach, she sits in the shadow of the pier and watches them racing the waves to shore, Greg tall and graceful, William clumsy, falling again and again, laughing when he does because Greg laughs. His hair glints blond in the sun. He looks nothing like either Greg or Elizabeth, tow-headed and blue-eyed, chubby and rosy. Watching him now, her vision begins to slowly narrow, until, as if through a tunnel, she sees nothing else. No sand, no sea, no sun, and no sky.

 

One morning before dawn, she stands in the kitchen listening to the wind moving in the palms that line the driveway. The fronds rattle and pause, rattle and pause. William and Greg are still sleeping, the house dark except for the kitchen light. She opens the door, and the palms rattle louder. Then she is in the car, the steering wheel in her hands.

She thinks she will drive until dawn, to the orchard just outside town, then turn back, but when the sky is gray, and then pink, and then blue, she is still driving. She notices nothing but the sensation of movement and of the broadness of the sky above the highway.

 

When she comes home at nine, Greg is at the dining-room table with his coffee and his breakfast plate and his paper. He looks up briefly, shovels a forkful of eggs in his mouth. “Where were you?”

“Just driving. I couldn’t sleep.”

“You didn’t take your cell. I’ve got a nine-thirty I probably won’t be able to make.” He stands, flips the paper, folds it under his arm.

“Where’s William?” she says.

“Sleeping. Dead to the world.”

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I should have told you I was going.”

Elizabeth goes to William’s room, slipping out of her shoes before she turns the knob of the nursery door.

In his crib he is breathing steadily, deep in sleep, knees to his chest. Elizabeth imagines him in the womb like this, floating, fingers pressed tightly around his feet, head bent close to his heart, surrounded by the sound of her voice, the rush of her blood. He seems very small, hardly larger than the day he was born.

 

The second time she leaves the house to go driving it is midnight, and noon before she stops driving. She is in the mountains. It is winter: the bark of the pine trees inky-black against the snow. She stops at a trailhead, strips off a glove, brushes her fingers against the pointed tips of the needles. Her feet make a piebald of the trail. The air is so cold it sears her throat, freezes the inside of her nostrils, and pulls when she tries to breathe. In the house it is so easy to breathe she never gives it a second thought.

The snow makes a silence so deep even the birds sound smothered. She had the same dream for years after her mother died: standing at the top of a shallow hill, the Michigan snow drifting sideways, lighter than ash, no break in the white until the sudden black of a road beneath opening under a truck’s metal jaws. From where she stood she could hear tires grinding against the new salt, then see the exhaust, pale as frost, billowing from a tailpipe.

In this dream she did not raise her hands, find the shape of her fingers against the drifts. She did not move forward, feel her foot sinking into the softness, or breathe. She stood rooted in place, gathering snow like an old oak tree, closed in hood and gloves and high rubber boots, waiting only for the earth to take color, to carve a horizon.

 

The cell phone begins to ring steadily. She takes the phone out of her purse and lays it on the passenger seat. Every five minutes Greg’s number flashes in the small blue window, through the dimming of afternoon and into night, so that eventually, only this and the glare from her headlights punctuates the darkness.

 

They see a therapist. Her office is on the second floor of a converted warehouse in the city. The first floor is a Chicano art museum, the third floor a set of lofts, the second a series of psychiatric practices, connected by a single, long, echoing hallway dotted with tasteful Oriental rugs. At the end of the hallway, just outside their therapist’s office, is a sculpture by a Peruvian artist—a single, oblong block of obsidian, with a miniscule, almost invisible spot of red at its core.

The therapist is a woman of indeterminate age who sits at a great distance from them, her hands folded over the arms of a black leather chair in the posture of a pharaoh. Although it is Greg that speaks, it is Elizabeth she regards, an unceasing stare that obliterates Elizabeth’s sense of her body, her place in the room. As Greg speaks, and speaks, it is as if her skin, membranes, organs, have imploded. She feels herself hovering, amorphous, weightless, at some point between the door and the black chair with its pair of cupped white hands.

“Motherhood has put her into a state of shock,” Greg says. “She has lost control.”

“Control is important to you,” the therapist says to Elizabeth. It is unclear whether it is a statement or a question.

“Isn’t it to everyone?” Elizabeth replies.

“Control is extremely important for her,” Greg continues as if she had not spoken. “Control. Logic. When she couldn’t conceive, and the doctors didn’t understand why, it was the end of everything. Everything had to end. Us. We had to end.”

“You’re angry,” the therapist said.

“When I married her, I gave her everything,” Greg says. “When I married her, she had nothing. She was living on eighteen hundred dollars a month. She grew up in public housing. Now she can buy anything she wants. Go anywhere she wants. Has the child she wanted. And I think she will kill herself.”

“Will you kill yourself?” the therapist asks.

“No,” Elizabeth says.

“There’s your answer,” the therapist says to Greg.

“Then what,” Greg says. “If not that, what. What.” He stands up and walks out of the room. After a moment, Elizabeth follows him out and down the street, finds him leaning against their car, his face in his hands. She stands in front of him for a moment, then circles in front of the car and climbs into the passenger seat and buckles herself in.

 

It is Halloween. They dress William as a ghost. Elizabeth cuts out two holes in a pillow case and puts it over his head and finally, he seems content. Every afternoon for a week he has woken from his nap screaming, inconsolable. She paces the floors, her ears numb, working a small, irregular circle between his shoulder blades with her fingertips until Greg’s car pulls in the driveway. When the headlights scan the length of the dining-room wall, the crying falls off. He begins to hiccup. Elizabeth hears the blood rushing in her ears. When Greg walks in, William leans forward, almost tipping out of her arms. Greg kisses the baby first, then Elizabeth. She pours out two glasses of wine and finishes hers without tasting it.

When their doorbell rings, Greg takes William to the door and holds out the bowl of candy. Elizabeth, sitting on the couch, sees thin arms stretching out to touch her hooded son, the little cries of the children, the small hands touching his hands. Their mothers pull them away. There are quiet admonitions. William drops chocolates in the children’s bags and claps at his own success. The Mennonites come to the door, and Greg invites them inside and they stand near Elizabeth, spinning in their identical Sleeping Beauty costumes, holding out their iridescent skirts. Their masks are heart-shaped, the eyes painted cerulean blue, heavy-lidded, as if they are falling asleep, or just waking, the cupid bow’s mouths slightly parted in an expression of surprise. Their mother stands aside, her hands clasped behind her long skirts. She says, “They are so joyful,” and Elizabeth sees that only the mother is wearing her bonnet. The girls’ hair is dark and shining, loose to their waists. They take their candy, thank William solemnly, as if he were an adult. As they leave, their mother’s hands rest on the crown of each girl’s head.

 

When the candy is gone, Greg shuts off the porch lights and sits on the couch a few inches from her and closes his fingers around her palm. They listen to the children screaming, their footfalls and laughter in the street, William still in his ghost costume, playing with Greg’s tie. They sit in the silence, holding hands.

 

In bed, his face is distracted and intent, as if he were reading a map. He closes his eyes, or stares intently at some part of her body—a collarbone, a rib. Afterward he falls asleep without speaking, at the far end of the bed, or turns on the television and lies with his head propped by three pillows, watching the shapes on the screen. Sometimes when she wakes in the morning the television is still on but muted, and he is sleeping, still on his back, his hands folded gently and carefully over his chest, and she can see what William will look like as a man.

 

For three weeks the narcissus have been unchanged, but the morning after the first frost, early November, green shoots have ruptured the bulbs. They curve in a hook, like beaks, smooth and nearly white. She cannot resist taking one between her fingers. It is soft and cold, and warms to her touch like skin.

From then they grow rapidly, entire inches overnight. Their green deepens, they straighten, as if reaching. When she wakes in the morning, breasts knotty with milk, mouth dry, the first thing she thinks of is the narcissus. She brings warm water, pours around the edges of the bulbs while the water line rises through the pebbles.

It is not the bulbs she thinks of as living, but the roots that have threaded the base of the forcing bowl, white and strong as coir, the roots she considers when she runs the tap water over her wrist to gauge the temperature. When the narcissus begin to flower, she brings the forcing bowl from the cellar into the brightness of the house in early afternoon. It is only in this light that she notices the roots covered in a fine hair, like lanugo.

 

When Highway 1 threads into the city and it is time to choose, she gets on the Embarcadero and then the on-ramp to the Bay Bridge, joins the morning rush-hour traffic of the upper deck. The Golden Gate is for suicides, or lovers, or tourists headed south to the verdant hush of the city park or north to the golden hills and the fog of Sausalito. The Bay Bridge rattles like a cage, an elaborate two-story metal jaw crammed with commuter cars, a highway in the sky. Even now at dawn, it vibrates with shuttling steel and rubber. Sunlight shudders past the diagonal box beams. The bridge is creased with shadows.

Coming off the bridge, on the other side, the toll-booth lanes are moving slowly. The traffic going into Oakland is at seventy miles an hour. In the rearview mirror the bay ripples, a pristine blue. She rolls down her window. The air tastes thick and metallic. On either side of her are semitrucks. Her cell phone begins to ring and continues to ring every five minutes. She takes out the phone and lays it on the passenger seat. By the time she reaches Martinez, the great scape of refineries shrouded in smog, the phone has fallen silent.

The gas station seems to lean onto the highway, the light from the convenience store lipping the pavement. An ancient Sonoco sign spins slowly above the rusted roof, the four pumps, and when she pulls into the bay, kills the ignition, the silence seems strange, forced. She reaches inside her sweater, and her fingers come away wet.

The cashier’s eyes skim past her face to the two oval stains streaking the green of her sweater, then away, then to her eyes. He is black, no older than twenty. “Can I help you?” he whispers. His face is stricken, as if he is witnessing a murder. When he hands her the restroom key, he is careful not to let his fingers touch hers.

The women’s room is closet-sized, stabbingly, fluorescently bright. It smells equally of gasoline, cigarettes, and talcum. A changing table attached to the wall is lying open, black straps dangling limply over the sides. Elizabeth wipes the table clean with a damp paper towel and folds it against the wall.

She flips the light switch, and the pressure at the front of her skull flints with the darkness. The bra unhooked, the heat from the radiator ripples over her skin. The milk is fast under her fingers, soaking the paper towels. Then all that is left is a white hot thread, from her right armpit to the nipple. The cell phone begins to ring again. She switches on the light and places the phone gently in the small silver trash can behind the toilet, in a nest of soiled diapers and sanitary napkins wadded in tissue.

 

Two hours north, the snow starts, and she lets the window down. The flurries swirl into the car, melting on the warmth of her face. She thinks about parking the car, letting the snow build inside and out, packing it with her hands—a kind of snow cave.

 

When she was fourteen, violence had broken out in their neighborhood. It was winter, a few hours of milky sunlight swallowed quickly by nightfall. The boys who stole cars and sniffed paint had divided in some mysterious way. There were elaborately staged fights late at night after their mothers had gone to bed. They left home and amassed in the courtyard, circling each other under the sodium lights. Elizabeth would wake to the sound of their fists, muffled grunts. She listened in bed, fell back deeply asleep while they fought on. One morning after a hard snow, when she woke, her skin was stiff with cold. Two panes of her bedroom window smashed, the bits of glass on the carpet smeared with blood and human hair. The foot of her bed was encased in a snow drift. She bathed in hot water until she felt her toes again, put on her parka and mittens and shoveled the snow out the window. She vacuumed the glass and went to school. Her father repaired the panes. The next night when the fights started, he went out to the courtyard with a gun she’d never known he had. He fired a shot into a tree and the boys disappeared. Afterward he took out the clip and let her hold the gun. She traded it from one hand to the other, unsure of the warmth and the weight. She pretended to shoot him. “Bang, bang,” she said, and he clutched his heart, gagging. By then she was almost as tall as he was. When she stood before him, they looked one another in the eye. “You’re dead,” she said, and he fell to the floor, still gripping his shirt in his hands. She lay the gun on his belly, gently, like a newborn child, and he lay still, his eyes closed, and held the gun in his hands.

 

Into the mountains the sky is an emphatic blue, the mountain peaks lipped in magenta. Occasionally a pair of headlights tips over the horizon and the shape of a car sucks toward her, flashing its brights.

Tomorrow it will be Thanksgiving. She thinks of Greg’s mother and stepfather moving toward him, past the immense glass wall of security, carry-ons in hand. His mother will be wearing cashmere, kissing William, asking, Where is your wife? After this there is a long parenthesis of silence in her mind, a kind of dull hum. When they arrive home the first thing they see, in the foyer, on the credenza, is the narcissus. By now surely, it is in full bloom.

 

At eleven she is circling a lake that is too big to be called a lake. She has been following it since the town of Zebulon twenty miles back, and it is there still, beyond the copses of birch, dark and unmoving, like a great footprint. The road has narrowed, Canada another fifty miles north. The snow has started again, falling straight as rain.

She hits the patch of ice and begins the long, sideways skid.

 

Submersion, a cup of silence and then a break, the cut of wind on her face. She comes awake, covered with glass. Slivers of light play across the dashboard, a wall of snow two inches from her face. The radio is on, hissing static. She turns her head, and glass slips down the back of her sweater, soft as sand. Her shoulders are rigid now. She understands, if she moves it could be worse, though there is blood already, warm and steady behind her left ear. Deep in the bank of snow her headlights are still shining; four feet into the wall are two faint, bluish tunnels, flickering gently. The clean smell of ice. It is a cancer, she remembers having thought before she realized it was a pregnancy, the image of blackness stained on her lungs or in the ducts of her breasts irreplaceable to her, somehow satisfying, even after it was clear she was too young, still too young, and strong enough in fact to create a new life.

There is glass on her tongue and she spits on the floor and then vomits.

 

Later she won’t remember how exactly she gets out, the individual machinations of planning and execution, only the parched taste of her mouth and the sound of her hands and knees gently crushing glass, followed by the realization that she is standing on the ice of the lake and moving forward toward a cluster of lights on the other side of the bay. Adrenaline, Greg will say later. An interval of suspended memory. When he says this, in the dark, William’s body touching her side and his side between them in the dark, and only the sound of the boy breathing, she understands that William’s memory will include this pause, as he realizes her absence, and the absence of milk and her hands. Adrenaline and the pause: a mere subtraction of her from the composite of memories of her. She thinks, it will not be painful. It will not be felt.

 

On the far side of the water are the lights, and the ice does not give, but she is already seeing the water closing over her head, the cold thrust of it on her forehead. The ice is silent under her feet. She knows, or once knew but tries to remember, what is sleeping, hibernating on the floor of the lake, where the warmer water is pressed in by the roof of ice. What is it, drinking oxygen from the water, not through a mouth but through the skin of the throat. She had asked her mother where the turtles went in the winter, and her mother had taken her to the pond where the neighborhood boys swam in the summer and said, under there, under this, and held her fingers and smiled. Elizabeth had imagined the turtles tucked under the ice, in their shells, safe and not sleeping, but something deeper than sleep and deeper than death, an instinct so precise it preserved them perfectly until spring.

 

The blood has dried behind her ear and pulls at her skin when she turns her head, and the lights are ahead, minutely closer, and above them a star. The star burns above her and above the lights, the brightest star in Pisces that represents the knot of the cord that ties mother and son, Aphrodite and Eros, who have transformed themselves into fish to ensure their survival. They have tied themselves together so that they will not become lost from one another in the river. Moving has brought feeling to her legs again and she understands that glass is embedded into the skin, that every time she takes a step forward, the glass chafes against the denim of her jeans, the leather of her boots.

 

The lights distinguish themselves from one another, and the village takes shape: the apex of a steeple, the roofline of a small shed. A bar is at the edge of the shore, a patio thrust out over the lake where in summer she knows they will put out tables with umbrellas and plastic chairs and men will drink and revel in the three months without snow. Someone opens a door and steps out to the parking lot to light a cigarette, and laughter rings across the ice, and when the laughter reaches her, she begins to run.

 

On the edge of the lake water ripples under the ice and her boots punch and sink past the ice and the water numbs her, instantly, to the knees. The snow forms a hard, solid drift from the lake to the parking lot. A tailless dog waiting in the parking lot watches her, shivering, as she takes the drift with her hands and pulls up on it as if it were a sheer face of rock. And music, solid squares of light from the windows and then she is inside, leaning onto the wall of coats in the sliver of silence as the faces turn from one another to the door.

“Come here, baby,” one says, “come here.”

 

Later the absence will not be of consequence. The day after she returns home, the school shootings will begin one by one to describe a slow circle around their city, and the newscasts will show close-ups of young girls, mouths torn open with grief, as if they didn’t know they were being watched, or didn’t care, and the cameras will pan, tracking the stretchers coming out of the cafeterias and study halls of beige brick schools as tall and vast and blank as warehouses. The newspapers will be filled with photo memorials of the dead. Greg and Elizabeth will open the newspapers in the morning, and she will cry while he watches her silently and then leaves for work.

 

Her flight got in close to midnight, and she had taken a taxi and let herself into the house, gone to their bed, and William woke when she lifted the covers and made a sound that was not exactly her name. In the morning Greg woke and lay looking at her for a long time, then reached over William, folded back the sheets, studied the bandages, then got up to begin making coffee. The day went on; she played with the baby in bed until Greg stood in the doorway and said, “How much more of this?” And she said, “I don’t know.”

 

He had not touched the narcissus. They are long dead, and there is not even the smell of rot—they are past that, only a dark, brackish water obscuring the rocks. She carries the bowl with both hands to the back yard on a hot afternoon when William sleeps and sleeps and sleeps; she carries the bowl to the orange tree and pours it all there, rocks and all, and leaves the bowl under the tree. A year later, after the daughter is born, Elizabeth is picking oranges with William; she is standing on a ladder in the hot sun while the baby watches them from her bed of blankets in the grass and William plays with the heavy, sweet oranges in the basket. An orange has split and the juice is trickling over his hands; the bowl is still there, cloudier now and cracked, and some animal has made a nest in it. She doesn’t think of it again until they sell the house to move to Virginia, doesn’t think of it even until after the house has sold and they’ve moved out to the hotel where they will stay the two weeks until they can take the flight to the new house in Virginia. She thinks of it in the middle of the night, and she isn’t sure if the new people have moved in yet; they may be there already, sleeping in her room. She wakes up William anyway and takes him and leaves the baby sleeping next to Greg at the hotel. William asks no questions the half-hour drive to the house; he is heavy and quiet in her arms when she lifts him from the car seat. The driveway is empty. With her free hand she flips the latch on the gate and it creaks as always. The yard is soft, full, overgrown. As if they have decided together, they sit down and take off their dew-soaked shoes, walk together to the orange tree, and William says it is as if the grass is washing their feet clean.

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