“If you want to know what I think–”
The sprinkler fans outside the window. Thetis puts down her pen and looks at the leaning tree. She has spoken to her husband about cutting it down, but neither of them has called anyone about it. She looks behind her at the clock on the kitchen wall, makes a mental note to turn off the sprinkler in a few minutes, wells went dry last year. She looks again at the tree, its shadow pressing upon the bushes lining the house front.
Thetis shifts on her chair, braces her feet against the chair legs. “What I think is this,” she continues in her notebook. From behind her, the fussing wind-up to a loud cry goes straight into her chest and cups her heart like a hand. The squeeze will be next, from that focused yell that all babies do when they can’t take it anymore. She read in a baby book that it is good to let babies cry, let them work it out themselves. She continues journaling.
It is all so still. Liveliness at a slow pace, capture it on tape and play it back at a faster speed. Then you will see things happening. Cars popping out of garages and zipping down the street. Children tripping out of houses with bags on their shoulders, pausing in clumps spaced out along the roadside. Big yellow bus zooming, stopping, inhaling children, sailing away. This woman and her dog, that woman and her friends, walking, talking. Oil truck making deliveries, beeping its way backward up steep long driveways. All of that before noon. A foment of activity and nothing to do a— The baby is wailing now.
She twists in her chair. The baby’s chick fuzz hair stands up in the sunlight through the window. He has stopped kicking and jouncing in his bounce chair, the attached tinkly toys are silent. He is crying, his head turned to the side. As though he feels her look, he turns his head to face her and belts out a loud cry, his eyes on her. As Thetis gets out of her chair and comes toward him, he stops crying and rotates his legs and arms, his lips pursed in concentration. She pauses to watch his whirring airplane display, then picks him up and croons.
“Y al mar, espejo de mi corazon,” she sings. The baby quiets, scowling, listening to his mother singing him a love song floating upon the mirror sea.
Thetis sits with the baby at her writing table in front of the window. She frees one arm and takes up her pen again. Such a full heart, it is shared between us. The baby must feel it, too, doesn’t he? This is something. How did it happen? You just give birth and, boomp, your life is full? Aching, it’s so full. I don’t get it. Another woman would look at her and say, “Don’t get what? You have a healthy, adorable four-month-old baby, you have a faithful husband with a nice income. You can spend all day with this baby, dressing him, feeding him. Look at that baby. What’s not to get?”
She cradles the baby in her other arm and takes a good look. The pink lips like wan berries, the downy forehead and the fluffy hair, the funny big ears, the creases below his chin, the dimples at his elbows. And those toes, those tiny, boneless, breath mint toes. It’s a wonder, she wants to write, that mothers don’t eat their babies, they look so delicious. But she doesn’t write it, the baby is between her and the writing table.
Thetis has a husband. Doug Anderson, all-American American. A different meaning to that old term, since Americans today are not people of action but people of inaction. Sitting people, computer keyboard and mouse-tapping people. So much stillness, and so much fat around the middle. That is Doug, silent and fat. With a heart-grabbing smile.
That’s how Thetis remembers him from their days as grad students together. His face was expressionless most of the time, but then it would break into such a sunny smile that she believed he had only been trying to hide his feelings. He was whimsical and funny. He saw the fun in things, he and his computer-loving friends, and she loved him. It was all so uncomplicated. They studied computers all day, answering so many questions with zero-one, on-off, plus-minus, yes-no. And come evening they had fun. They went to dinner at one of the city’s many happening restaurants—“happening!” Gosh, so long ago. Then they went to a movie, preferably science fiction but what did it matter, and they went for ice cream. Next day they did it all again. It was all they wanted and it would always be so.
Thetis takes the baby to the window. Take a look outside, what do you see? Tree. Leaf. Grass. Thetis looks for something moving to show the baby. Look, way down there, a car! See it? She sits back down, lifts up her tee-shirt, unhooks the bra flap covering her right breast, the flap with the tiny safety pin on it to say, “This one,” cradles the baby in her right arm, pinches her breast and puts the point of it in the baby’s mouth. His lips close around it and as he sucks the pin pricks make her draw in a quick breath. She tries to make herself relax and settles back in her chair. Shifting closer to the desk, she takes up her pen, but feeling her right shoulder tense up, she puts the pen back down and makes herself slump back again. Outside she watches a squirrel move down a maple onto the grass and disappear beyond view. She permits herself the muscle-tensing of twisting around to check the clock on the end table. Five more minutes, then switch. If only he were naked and she had on her white sleeveless nightgown made out of that gauzy material, so that someone could capture on film this beautiful time in her life when she does not look like herself. Mother and babe. Her arms beneath the sucking baby, quiet and still, she contemplates this missed photo op.
When the baby has had his fill, Thetis puts his sagging body into the flattened bed of the stroller and goes into the kitchen. There is a stack of bills, she will pay them on the twentieth. Next to them is a pile of unanswered correspondence. A sister has married, another is pregnant. They are waiting for her response, her joy and good wishes spelled out on a sheet of paper for them to read and re-read in happy, self-conscious satisfaction or anticipation. Thetis snuffles a soft chuckle. Fire starter, more likely, tossings onto the newspaper stack. Or recycled, in a translucent blue bag at the end of her sisters’ driveways. She turns from the stack toward the pantry and takes down a box of vanilla wafers.
At this hour there are the first of the afternoon talk shows. Her fingers put down the TV clicker and go for a cookie. She is looking at a row of people sitting facing an audience. A big white woman in yellow dreadlocks with a turned-down mouth and a bottle of mascara on her eyelashes. A fat teenaged girl with perfect skin and distressed bleached hair lacquered on top of her head, a glint of metal from her eyebrow. A skinny dark teenaged boy in black with chrome accents sits slouched forward, his elbows on the arm rests. An ugly bunch of people, far away from where she lives. A commentary starts up in her head as she watches. To be ugly, to live amongst people who talk that way to each other except no bleeping sounds to keep the words away. You hear it, every time your daughter calls you a bitch. Or your lover calls your mother a fat-assed cow. Every day to give each other such insults. What if they lived in different parts of the country? Would they send letters to each other, call each other stomach-churning names in writing? Except they probably don’t write. Probably can’t. No, come on, they can write. But they don’t, not part of their culture. Sub-culture. Underground culture, crawl in the dirt, get eyebrow ring caught on a root, tear away skin, get an ugly scar culture. If one of these people writes someone it’s a major life event. Something to cherish, except these people don’t cherish anything. They’re too primitive to know what’s cherishable and what’s not. She’s got a baby coming, that fat girl, and the mother is cursing her out. They are bad people and don’t deserve to live.
Vanilla wafers are sticking to the surfaces of her molars and getting stuck between her gums and the sides of her mouth. Her tongue swipes the stuff away, her finger gouges out the pits of the molars. She swallows, takes another couple of cookies from the bowl.
Doug will be home tonight and he will not be pleased. He will not be displeased, either. He will be nothing at all, just Doug, waiting for something to happen. He will not propose anything for the weekend. She will suggest going out. On? Off? Yes? No? He will say O.K. Plus. She will say, “Where do you want to go?” He will say, “Oh, I don’t care, anywhere you want.” Minus. She will make arrangements for them to go out—call the babysitter, check the movie schedule, make a dinner reservation. And she will go out and he will, too, and they will not speak but it doesn’t matter, they’re married. And they will get out together and it’ll be good. Plus. It’ll be good for the marriage and she wishes her mother could be there to see them going out, all freshly showered and nicely dressed, he in a tie, she in high heels, for Thetis knows how much it would please her. Zero. She gets up and goes into the kitchen. The pile of unanswered letters waits by the pantry. She’ll write her about it, their date night, just mention it off-handedly in between paragraphs about the baby. She pours another dozen vanilla wafers into the bowl.
Hchuh! These people are driving me nuts. She clicks the remote. On her way back to her desk she checks the baby asleep in his stroller.
Who is your husband? Thetis writes. He is neither short nor tall, neither slender nor fat. She looks out the window and is not drawn to go out. He is a soft-bellied man with a soft-bellied mind. What does it matter now what he is like? When I gave birth I became a nun-sort-of, and I learned self-control. Imagine a nun with a baby. What would she do?
Thetis twists and looks at her baby lying on his back, the blue and pink plaid blanket draping the sides of the stroller bed. He is staring at a corner of the ceiling.
She would serve, that’s what she would do, she continues. If you want to hide something, you can, as a nun. You are under no obligation to reveal it all. In fact, you’re required to conceal, your body, your personality. Your mind? Nuns as scholars? Mothers of young children are nuns. They dress in shapeless garb, they sublimate their desires in order to serve their children. And they think nothing of it. Nothing.
Mothers as nuns. Do I buy that? Am I a nun, then, with this orgasm urge? Thetis puts down her pen and leans back in her chair. She can feel the flesh of her sex pressed against the hard chair seat. With the boundless energy of a healthy young animal her feet are on the stairs, the bedroom on her mind, when the baby cries. She halts on the steps, and with a loud, rough sigh goes back down. She prepares the baby for a walk.
There is abundance everywhere she looks. It is early summer, the grass, gorged from plentiful spring rains, is still green. The yards and houses are tidy and fresh. Even the mailboxes show this. Gleaming white or black on smooth wooden posts, the box announces the house. It is also gleaming, its wood is smooth. She is coming abreast of a woman on her knees in her street-front flower bed. A call of “Hi!” prepares itself in her chest. It is not released, the woman does not turn, Thetis walks by, unnoticed. It is a new neighbor, she does not remember her name. The top of the baby’s head pulsates; Thetis cups the baby’s bottom through the sack he is in, strapped to her chest. Her hands feel the warmth of his body and slide down to his dangling ankles. Mine, say her hands, and she pulls his feet to her waist which his legs cannot encircle.
My name is Thetis Anderson. I’m an average-sized woman, aged 33, with a face that reminds many people of someone they know. My most remarkable feature is my hair: long, straight, so dark it’s nearly black, thick-stranded. I’m married to Doug Anderson , a man I can’t see. I’ve been many places with him, but I can’t remember him being there with me. Invisible to begin with, after a few weeks’ nodding acquaintance, I decided to look at him. When I brought him into focus, I decided to marry him. He has given me a child, and disappeared, right by my side. I’ve recently decided to look for him again. Now that I see him again, I wonder how it is that I wanted to marry him. This thought stays with me. I wish he were invisible again.
Energized, pleasantly warm, ready, Thetis arrives once more at her driveway. Nothing to do but go in. Upstairs in the baby’s room she lifts the sleeping baby out of the sack and lays him down in his crib. A few minutes later she comes down with a plastic basket of laundry. After shutting the door on the filling washing machine she goes to sit in front of the TV. Five, six, seven stations appear one after another, a jumping slide show. She turns off the set and goes into the living room. At her writing table she adds a snippet to a story. “She got into bed next to him. ‘Goodnight,’ she said when he turned out the light. It was the first words she had uttered all day.”
She can only make love to her husband if she imagines he is someone else. She imagines he is a man who does not love her, but wants her because she is hot. And she comes, a hot babe with a single-minded man, his tongue between her legs lapping up good will. After she has cooperated for her husband’s pleasure, she hugs him and feels pleased. She has done what she is supposed to do. She adds, “Love early and don’t ask too many questions,” wondering where she heard it. The things one hears, and remembers. If I dig up the tulips, will they bloom again? If I dig them up, what do I do with them?
Over the untidy tops of the yew bushes Thetis spots the mail truck making its way down the street. It is still three or four houses away. She goes back to her train of thought.
It’s not a matter of knowing one another well. It’s avoiding each other just enough so that there remains new territory to venture into. Always. Step forward and take a token of knowing about each other. Then stand still. We are standing still.
She takes the time to watch the truck stop at her mailbox, flip open, shove in, rev and go.
Rev and go. Soon, we will advance into new territory.
There is no baby sound at the moment. How blissful to feel unencumbered, for a brief time. Bliss is brief. Motherhood is forever. Standing still is the only time Thetis feels she is making any progress. And she feels encouraged that she will arrive, one day, as people are always saying. Put the final jagged piece in place and see the big picture. Little turnings of the wrist, pressing with fingers, feeling the fit as the chip of cardboard pops in. It is the only movement that takes her some place. The running up and down stairs, picking up, sitting down, unwrapping of breast, heaving onto shoulder, pacing, patting, pushing, plugging her ears takes her nowhere. “Hello? I’d like to order some bark mulch? Do you have the brown kind, not too red?” The voice at the other end drones a moment, flips up into a question. “No, thank you, I’m not ready to order yet.” She puts down the phone, puts on her jacket, pats her keys in her pocket, pauses at the foot of the stairs to listen. Quietly she steps out the front door and stands looking down the driveway, along the road, feeling the tidy houses as well-spaced boxes along the way, with mothers and children and fathers inside. A scratchy cry sounds from behind her in the house, making its way across her shoulders to her ears. Her eyes lift from the suburban scene to the distant forest down the hill beyond the wetlands, the green tops like spears against gun-gray clouds, and the baby’s cry finds more wind to carry its need to the mother. She reaches back, finds the door knob, and pulls the door shut.
At her feet blades of grass jitter with the kicks of insects. She peers down at a grasshopper as it flexes its long twig legs but does not jump again. She puts her head down to see at its eye-level. Trapped by tall green blinders she sits back up and looks down the hill. The high yellow-topped grass on the slope across the street reminds her of rolling like a log down a long hill with her brothers and sisters, how hard it was to keep from going sideways, how they competed to see who could get to the bottom fastest, and the trouble they got in when their mother saw their clothes. She wonders why she has never seen any children rolling down that slope opposite. She runs through the inventory of children in the neighborhood and comes up with sixteen. The bus will come and go and the children will all go into their houses and not come out again till morning to get back on the bus. And the mothers will stay at home like her, some of them, the rest will go someplace for a few hours and then come home. And everyone will watch TV all night. On Saturday each family will go out and buy things after enduring the kids’ soccer game. On Sunday they will sleep late and put off doing chores and homework but get it all done somehow. It’s a lot of work.
There is a gorgeous falcon soaring out over where the cross street comes in. Thetis jumps to her feet as though to get a closer look. The bird comes down to the road, hops once and again and croaks loudly. It is only a crow. She sees that the trees down there are spread with a lumpy carpet of the strident, tiresome creatures. Her eye leaves them, drawn by the first lights from the distant shopping center. She would like to take an arrow to a bow and pull back, stretching the wood into a tighter and tighter ‘C,’ aim calmly and release. The arrow would zing forward with a confident hum, pierce one two three four of the ugly crows and continue on with just as much power all the way to the “O” in the sign above the grocery store two miles off. And there it would stay, saying to anyone who looked up as they went in to get cereal and milk, here are hometown crows and here is your hometown store, what more do you want, any of you? That’s not what I meant to say. She yanks the thought arrow out of the imagined fluorescent sign. In the dusk someone is walking their dog up her section of the road. Thetis slinks down but then straightens as she realizes the house’s outside lights are off, she is invisible. She would like a dog but does not want more work, so has relegated that wish to oblivion, along with learning Chinese, how to tune a piano, sailing. Out to sea with a husband she loves to be with. She can see the back of his head, he is a little ahead of her, they are both looking in the same direction, at the point to which they are headed together. They see the same things but have different thoughts about them and talk about that, about everything, it is fun, life together is a frolic, there is nothing like it, there is nothing more to hope for, it is here now and they are the luckiest people in the world but no, they have only the same happiness that so many people have, it is exciting but it is simply human, a human togetherness. A normalcy that eludes her even though she has done everything she was supposed to do. This is how she understands her life.
Thetis sits on the brick step until dark. Hungry, she will just gather the mail and go in. Picking her way carefully down the bumpy driveway the thicket of rhododendrons in the lower yard looks denser than in the light, a good hiding place for a snake. The day’s mail is slight, a bill and advertisement circulars, hardly worth the trouble to send and deliver and pick up. Curious to know how much electricity they are using, she tears open the bill, and trips on one of the driveway bumps. She looks around, embarrassed that someone might have seen her clumsy fall. There is no one, no movement, not even in the tree tops. As pebbles press into her knees, she feels the leaning tree stamp its black length against the living room windows. Fear riffles up the back of her shirt and she runs inside the now silent house.
Standing in the unlit entry she listens. It is too quiet, not like a house with a baby. A dull lump of panic like a swallowed ice cube holds her in place a moment then propels her up the stairs.
Her heart pounds as she pauses outside the bedroom door, listening, hearing nothing. Quietly she turns the knob, the door caws once on its hinges. The room is dark but she sees the changing table, the safety strap hanging down. Above it is the mobile in soft pastel colors, a pig and a cow, a frog and a duck, happy replacement for the black and white sharp cubes and pyramids that a parent magazine recommended but that freaked him out when he was a newborn. Black windows enclose the room on two sides as Thetis had not thought to put on the dinosaur night lamp. A little light from the hallway carves a rectangle upon the crib. The baby lies quiet in the dark room looking through the crib railings at the mirror window. He turns his head and watches her standing in the doorway, his small chest rising and falling. As she approaches he fixes his eyes on her, then kicks his legs once, as if bringing down a gavel to restore order to a world that must be his. She turns on the light, picks him up and places him on the changing table. As she fastens the tape of the fresh diaper over the baby’s small hips, she hears the baritone rumble of the garage door opening. In the comfortable chair beside the warm lamp glow she sets the baby to her breast. Downstairs she hears the side door from the garage slam shut and then the sound of her husband’s whistling. A happy pop rock song from their dating time, he whistles absent-mindedly but always in tune. The baby’s nursing permits her to delay the moment of the end-of-day greeting. She kicks the door almost shut.
Soft steps come up the stairs. The door opens slowly, as though he is afraid to wake the baby. He straightens from his instinctive creeping slouch when he sees her. He seems to take no notice that she is sitting in the dark.
“Beef stroganoff?” He offers this with a hopeful expression that makes her look away from him. A trickle of disgust in her stomach at the prospect of a few rubbery mushrooms. She does not want what he is offering. It is horrible to know this and not tell. But what good would telling do? Wouldn’t he just offer something else that she doesn’t want?
She checks the clock on the little matching side table by her chair, time to switch. She pulls her nipple from the baby’s mouth and lifts him to her shoulder. Patting his back she feels cool air upon the moist tip of her bare breast and knows her husband’s eyes are on it. He wants her but will not do anything about it. He will wait for her to let him know, that it’s safe to touch her, that she will not say, No. That is how she trained him, unwittingly, in the first months of their marriage. Her No’s then meant, Not now. She hadn’t meant them to mean, wait till I tell you. But she had not understood that No is heavy and she had made him feel foolish. He waited. He was waiting.
“OK,” she says, and he looks relieved. She has given him his marching orders and shown him she has this baby business covered. He backs out, leaving the door open, his way of saying, I am with you. The stair treads creak loud complaints despite his light step. The baby sucking eagerly from the other breast she lets her mind float back to when she dandled her fierce orphan thoughts on the lap of the early afternoon.
Amy Lapwing is an American writer living in New Hampshire. Her first novel, Perfect Pitch, was self-published; awaiting publication are a children’s book, Ben, a Cougar, and two novels. Her latest book of speculative literary fiction, A Passing Breeze, is set in the year 2145 when women hold power in America. See more of Amy’s work at her WordPress blog.
If you enjoyed ‘Walk Away’ leave a comment and let Amy know.
Find out where to read more of Amy’s publications below:
Writing as Amy Lapwing:
Perfect Pitch, self-published novel, Booklocker.com: 2008.
Writing as Amy Pitts:
“Pretentious Shoes,” poem, Compass Rose: The White Pines College Journal of Art and Writing, 1997, vol. II, No. 1, p. 27.
“The Taizé Effect,” essay, New Hampshire Episcopal News, Sep.-Oct., 2005; winner of Polly Bond award from Episcopal Communicators, 2006.
“An Image from Holy Week,” essay, New Hampshire Episcopal News, Mar., 2007, p. J.
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Shallow Creek contains twenty-one original horror stories by a chilling cast of contemporary writers, including stories by Sarah Lotz, Richard Thomas, Adrian J Walker, and Aliya Whitely. Told through a series of interconnected narratives, Shallow Creek is an epic anthology that exposes the raw human emotion and heart-pounding thrills at the the genre’s core.
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