Somewhere inside of me there is a little girl, her hair in waves and her heart in shambles. I have ignored her for so long that I no longer remember how to pull her to safety. What I do remember is sobbing the night of the tornado, the shutters clattering and the windows shaking. I remember the heat, the way it lay still and thick across the top bunk of the bed. I remember that small bedroom, that there was no solace, no quiet, no escape. I remember, and this is the sharpest part of all, that it wasn’t all bad. Sometimes she made cinnamon rolls from canned biscuits, the spoon hitting the seam until it spilled out speaking love in someone else’s language. That she searched for me not once but three times, which implies that she cared. That she couldn’t sleep until I had been found and put back to bed. So much easier to think that she didn’t love me but also not true. How, then, does love look? How to shape and twist love into something that makes sense? If not protection, not care, then what? Instinct, perhaps. Obligation, I suppose. She is sitting in her apartment at this moment, I imagine. Sitting and smoking, the oxygen cord twisted around one ankle. I am ashamed that I don’t love her. When I think of her, then, now, anytime, my heart becomes a three ton tank and nothing can gain entrance.
They’d had one of their own, years ago. He was a gurgling, chubby baby who was so alive it almost hurt to look at him. Eyes as clear and bright as a full moon at midnight. Skin so soft that they couldn’t stop touching it.
She came up behind him, carrying a load of laundry in her arms. “What in the world…?”
He jumped slightly, looked sheepish. “Just smelling him.” He bent close over the crib again and breathed deeply, to keep his nose full of the fresh, sweet smell. She rolled her eyes, but there was fondness in it. She did it in a motherly way, which was the thing that had amazed him the most since the baby had come. The way she’d taken to pregnancy and motherhood without the slightest hitch. It was wondrous. More incredible to him than even the miracle of childbirth was the fact that Louise, the same girl who couldn’t hold a job for more than six months, who cried at the slightest provocation, this creature who flinched if he moved too quickly or spoke too loudly, had suddenly found within herself a deep river of patience. She seemed wise for the first time, solidly rooted and grounded in her body instead of wispy and thin, as if she were haunting herself.
They tucked Max into his crib that night and instead of crying, he nodded off to sleep easily while they stood there in the doorway gazing in amazement at what they’d made together.
“You know, he looks just like his Daddy,” she whispered, and then she winked and slid her leg out of her ratty pink robe. After all the months of care and worry, all the well-meaning visitors who came bearing casseroles and stayed too long, this one simple action opened something in him that had been clamped down for longer than he’d realized.
“Move it along, pretty lady.” He swatted her behind and guided her onto the dining room table, still cluttered with unfolded laundry. He swiped it all away in one movement, feeling a little grandiose and liking it. And why not? This was his castle, and he felt like the king of it for the first time in a very long time.
“Come here, you.” She grinned wickedly and dropped her robe to the floor.
It was two days shy of the six week mark. They’d been planning on waiting and he knew they probably should, but everything seemed to be pointing towards this one glittering moment and he was not going to squander it. The air between them had been lighthearted and playful all evening. Not that they’d been having problems, not at all. It was just that with the pregnancy and now the baby, well, she’d been focused and he understood that. He hadn’t resented it. Resentment was a strong word, but he had to admit, it had been wearing on him a bit.
The real truth of it was that he missed her. Missed hearing her soft sighs, missed how their bodies fit together perfectly, she being the little spoon. Max had changed all of that so suddenly. It was exciting to be a father, but he was also scared and more than a little lonely. He felt left out, a spectator, and he wasn’t used to that.
He tried to pull off what she called his howdy-do wink, but he failed and they both laughed, then fell together on the table, lights fully ablaze.
He was kind and gentle and she was just as lovely and warm as he remembered. Afterward, they talked about how lucky they were to have this little house, their beautiful boy, and each other. They grew hungry and neither wanted the night to end, so they raided the kitchen, giggling like teenagers as they shushed each other in the dark. They ended up in bed with crackers and cheese, a cup of chocolate pudding, a spoon, and pickles. They murmured in low voices, so as not to wake him.
“What do you think he’ll be when he grows up?” Dody mused. “He seems kind of strong for a baby.” He shook his head in disbelief at the superhuman strength that his offspring possessed.
“Well then, he’ll probably be a weight-lifter. Or work in a circus,” she teased.
“He might get married someday. And have kids of his own,” his eyes wide, his forehead creased with the effort it took to imagine Max grown-up.
“Well, I certainly hope so, silly. Everyone needs a family, don’t they?”
The truth was, sometimes Max hardly seemed real; they were still shocked at his existence in their lives. When they fell asleep that night, Louise was the little spoon and Dody was happier than he could ever remember being.
When they woke the next morning, Max was dead. Cold and blue. Emergency services were called. The police came and went. There was nothing to be done. No amount of crying, sobbing, railing, or wishing could change it. The clean laundry still lay in a heap on the dining room floor, but now it shouted of their negligence and inability to order their lives. In the few short hours since they had walked together into his room, sunlight piercing a sword through a space in the blind, Louise had aged years.
“Don’t touch him, you son of a bitch.” Her voice was a growl as she punched a paramedic in the temple. Hard. He sat down on the couch, dazed. She was taken to the bedroom, but her sobs could still be heard throughout the house, punctuated by breaking glass and splintering wood. Dody would hear those sounds again and again, in waking and dreaming hours, for the rest of his life.
That had been more than thirty years ago, and in all of that time, he and Louise had never once discussed the sex of the evening before.
But discussion or no discussion, their lives were clearly delineated into before and after. Before the light went out of her eyes. Before he began heaping guilt upon his own head. Before their lives took on the echo of an empty, cavernous room.
And after. After they had gotten their hopes up, only to have them dashed upon the rocks. After she had carried a living creature inside of her body for such a long, magical time. After they had learned the words to lullabies. After they had plastered the picture holes and repainted the room. After he had been alive, and laughed for the first time, no teeth yet in that tiny, pink smile.
And the one which reverberated and bounced around every room they inhabited; after they had abandoned their son for their own selfish enjoyment. While they lavished in each other, Max was in the next room preparing to die, his lips moving in that sucking motion, his eyelashes trembling ever so slightly as he struggled to breathe.
No, they hadn’t ever discussed that night and he suspected that they never would. It had been rendered even more powerful and appallingly awful by the fact that the sex had been transcendent. Better than it had been in years. One of those experiences which surpasses the physical, and becomes spiritual in nature.
Dody had been told more than once that he was a sensitive man and on that night, he had indulged his sensitive nature and allowed himself to be awed and amazed by the circuitousness of life. He wasn’t normally religious, but that night, he wondered how such perfection could be achieved by two mere mortals. He looked into Louise’s eyes and understood for just a moment how people could get caught up in that Jesus nonsense. She was a goddess. A beautiful, potent force. She had just created a human being.
He tried to explain this to her later, during the pickles, pudding, and cheese, but words ruined it. His mouth made it into something awkward and unwieldy. Overwrought and under-thought. He finally settled on this, “I want this moment, this night, to last forever and ever.”
She laughed lightly and tapped him on the shoulder. “You know better than that, my one true love. Everything changes. Max will grow, we’ll get older.”
“But I don’t want to get older. I want to stay right here with you for the rest of eternity.”
“Eternity or not, I’m going to check on Max,” she half rose, one arm outstretched to reach for her robe, but he pulled her back towards him into the dark and warm cocoon that they had created. He pulled the covers over her, tucked them in around the sides, and thought as he did that he would keep her safe for the rest of her days. He felt as he imagined men of antiquity used to feel, standing on a craggy hilltop, club in hand, surveying their holdings. He thought of his small family and was proud of his part in it. He wanted to beat his chest, but instead he ducked under the blankets and attempted to distract her. It worked. Two hours later, both spent and sweaty, they collapsed into a pile of sleep.
Then morning spilled over the horizon and their lives were forever changed.