Authors: Quinton Skinner
I have placed my happiness on seeing you good and accomplished, and no distress which this world can now bring on me could equal that of your disappointing my hopes.
, in a letter to his daughter
Thanks to Alicka Pistek, Mark Tavani, Brynnar Swenson. My loving gratitude to Natasha and Gabriel for providing an abundance of (often inadvertent) inspiration.
Thanks always to Sarah.
PEOPLE LIKE THIS MUST HAVE THEIR SHARE OF PROBLEMS.
he ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu once enjoyed a vivid dream of being a butterfly—swooping, beating his wings, riding the currents of the most minute disturbances in the atmosphere.
When he awoke, he was forever troubled. He could never answer, to his satisfaction, whether he had been a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or whether he was now a butterfly dreaming he was a man.
When he went down the slope in the snow, his mind was in a riot. He tried to overcome gravity and deposit himself unharmed at the top of the tree-lined trail. It was no good, of course. He was unable to out-will reality, to bend time and happenstance, to reverse the sixty seconds that had seen him battered, his consciousness fractured. He knew that he might never recover from this.
His eyes sent to his brain a series of snapshots: the denuded trees, the whiteness of the snowstorm broken by black spots of rock, his own breath forming trails in the winter air as he fell.
He slid and tumbled, his rage unfolding. Big clumps of snow fell from the sky and landed in his eyes. He craved revenge for what had just happened, but his body ignored his commands, sending back spiky blasts of pain from his extremities and a blast of panic from his chest as his wind was knocked out.
Gravity continued to do its thing and he fell. He began to roll, and then remembered what was at the bottom of the slope.
The river was partially frozen and covered with floating snow. From the top of the hill it had been a thing of beauty, winding in serenity through the city. Down here it was noisy, its currents sounding like a long exhaled breath. He looked up and caught a glimpse of the bridge, with cars going past, and wondered if anyone could see him.
The thin ice snapped like a glass tabletop. The sound was muffled by the snow and cold; it was as though the elements had conspired to make his death as quiet and uneventful as possible. He tried to grab hold of something, anything, and gasped when the freezing water enveloped his shoulders and legs.
Get up. Just stand up. Don’t let him get away with this.
He was in the water now. A deep part of his mind urged him to stay alive, but he couldn’t get his arms and legs to work. His cold-weather gear started soaking up water, and he felt himself begin to sink.
Up above, in the snowstorm, an airplane passed. Inside they would be worried about their landing. But they would be warm.
Then the water was up around his face. It was black and too cold to be believed. His eyes and mouth remained above the surface, and he sucked in air in panicked gasps. Water filled his ears.
Get up get up get up get up get—
The air was . . . no, that wasn’t air. Was he breathing water? He wasn’t breathing. He was
Pain seethed through his arms and legs, into his chest. He couldn’t feel his hands and feet.
This isn’t good. I don’t want this.
He could hear the river singing a sleepy song. He tried to remember where he was. He had fallen. He was in the river. He could still see the sun but it was filtered through an aqueous gauze.
Someone get me out of here. Please.
He was on the bottom of the shallow water. The sun had gone out. He tried to remember the sound of his own name. He—
—remembered holding a photograph. It showed a man in his forties, with thick dark hair and upright posture. Next to him was a younger woman, obviously his daughter—the resemblance between them was striking. In between, holding both their hands, was a beautiful little girl in a flower-print dress, her bangs hanging over her forehead, caught in mid-sentence, talking to her mother and grandfather. To one side was a handsome man of about thirty, in a blazer and open-necked shirt; he stood just apart, as though not sure whether he was allowed to get too close to the family—or if he wanted to.
It was a sunny spring afternoon at the farmers’ market. In a second photo, the young woman turned to the handsome man and kissed him on the lips. The older man made a point of diverting his granddaughter’s attention. They were good-looking, well-dressed people. They seemed comfortable and happy together. They were worthy of envy. They showed little sign of what they had just been through.
The father and the boyfriend shared a glance. In a third photo we might try to discern what passed between them, but the image revealed little. They smiled with their mouths and not their eyes. They looked through each other, rather than allowing their gazes to meet.
People like this must have their share of problems. Everyone does. At the market they smelled the hay, the flowers, the cotton candy. Each in their various ways tried not to think about sickness, loss, resentment, and the shadowed corners of the will that had to be checked. They appeared a picture of happiness. He remembered that day. He—
—he was trying to talk, but the freezing water burned his throat and the centers of his eyes clouded over with the awful whiteness of the void.
1. ALL HER FEARS DISSOLVING FOR A SECOND OR TWO.
ven in her sleep she could taste her mother’s grilled-cheese sandwiches: crackling on the outside but rescued from dryness by a fatty residue of butter coating her tongue, the cheddar inside melted perfectly and peeking innocently around the bread crust. It smelled of calmness, security, and warmth.
“Something to drink, Jay?” her mother asked.
“Milk,” Jay mumbled through the first mouthful of the sandwich.
“Excuse me?” Jay’s mother said; she was beautiful but looked tired, with her long hair tied back and a suggestion of shadow around her eyes.
“Milk,” Jay said more clearly.
“Is that how we ask for something?”
“Can I have some milk, please?” Jay blurted out.
Her mother nodded with satisfaction and went to the kitchen. Jay heard the sound of the refrigerator opening and the milk being poured. She had another bite of her sandwich.
The light streaming in through the dining-room windows cast pools of reflection on the wooden tabletop. Jay made sure not to leave crumbs. Her father wasn’t home—he was at work—but she had trained herself to avoid the looks of irritation her carelessness provoked. He made Jay tense and worried. She loved him so much that she grabbed hold of him whenever he was near, pressing herself to his leg or arm, her thumb making for her mouth, all her fears dissolving for a second or two.
The milk was in front of her. Jay couldn’t remember her mother bringing it. Somehow she knew none of this was real, but it felt so good she didn’t want it to stop.
She lived in a place called Minnesota. It was a very cold place where people knew how to behave themselves. It was actually only cold for part of the year, but that cold was so profound, so shocking and even terrifying at times, that it cast a shadow over even the hottest and sunniest days of summer.
Jay’s mother was gone. She had left. That’s right, she had left.
The house was quiet. It was three stories including the spacious attic, full of comfortable furniture and a kitchen always stocked with food. Though she was in a little girl’s body, Jay could remember growing to adulthood there. She’d snuck cigarettes by the big elm in the backyard, and lost her virginity in her room one afternoon when she was supposed to be at school. She loved the house, for all its residue of pain and disappointment.
Another bite of the sandwich. The crispy pan-fried bread gave way to the hot, liquid core. The place was entirely quiet, the way it had often been when she was a teenager, with her father off somewhere and her mother silently painting in the sunporch—no music, no talk radio, nothing but Anna’s endless meditation on the back garden. It had grown increasingly quiet during dinnertime as well, the laughter and storytelling between Jay’s parents having shifted to a more muted song of things unsaid that Jay could never entirely penetrate.
She got up from the table. Strange, she was so short. The top of the table was at about shoulder level. How old was she? Five? Six? She reached up and felt the soft outlines of her cheeks, the feathery wisps of her shoulder-length hair.
The living room was as she remembered (when
it?), with stacks of magazines and books everywhere, her own and her parents’, with Anna’s gardenscapes on all four walls.
Anna. Jay’s mother’s name was Anna. And now she was gone. She had died.
Jay sat on the worn-out sofa under the room’s largest window, raising a small nimbus of dust that dispersed around her. From there she could see the open door to the sunroom, and make out the workbench where Anna kept her paints, rags, and brushes. Jay tongued out a stubborn bit of her sandwich from the back of her teeth, enjoying the flash of a flavor she hadn’t tasted in . . .
She was never going to see her mother again.
With an emotion resembling panic Jay thought of the closet upstairs where Anna kept her clothes. She knew everything was just as Anna had left it; Jay’s father, Lewis, was too benumbed by grief to get rid of them. Jay had an urge to go up there and lose herself in the smell of her mother’s stale perfume and the feel of the dresses Jay used to press her face against.
But she couldn’t. She willed herself to stand, but it was impossible. She might as well have been cemented to the couch.
The room began to break apart as though it wasn’t real. Of
it wasn’t real.
Her bedroom was suffused with the morning chill. Weak light insinuated its way through a crack in the curtains. Jay stretched her body and remembered where she was, and when it was.
Next to her slept a man. Stephen. That was Stephen. He slept with his arms folded, his chest rising and falling, his handsome face tense as though he was working out some unsolvable problem. Somehow he sensed Jay waking up and shifted toward her a couple of inches.
Jay was twenty-three. She wasn’t a little girl any longer, though she could taste the grilled-cheese sandwich of her dream and, almost gasping, remembered that she had been in the presence of her mother just moments before. She had asked for the milk correctly, after some prompting. She had pleased her mother one more time.
She shook her head because it wouldn’t do to start the morning crying. There was a
little girl down the hall, after all, and Jay had to be strong for her. She had to be strong in spite of how certain she was of her own weakness.
It wouldn’t be irresponsible to doze for ten more minutes. Ten more minutes, and then Jay would launch herself out of bed and transform into a domestic whirlwind effortlessly getting Ramona ready for school and then heading to work. It would be easy. It would be simple, in a way that it never was before.