BY TIM STEPHENS
The balcony stood over a small garden three stories below. The garden contained a patio and several flower bushes, behind which ran a chain link fence. Behind the fence stood a thick uncultivated wood, the university’s ecological indulgence. The nearest branches of a huge maple stretched, festooned with leaves, almost to her balcony rail. The leaves were like outstretched hands, fingers wide, beckoning, offering in the sunlight.
She returned to the living room. There were Angie and Troy Fletcher, Phillip and Barb Song, and Doug and Olivia.
My life has been a waste, she thought. What do I want with any one of these people? Nothing. Nothing. Or with anything they do or might say. Nothing. The pale day stood around her like a watery prison. She felt empty as a pecan that floats, the shell intact, shiny and healthy outside; the inside empty, even of explanation. Just leave me alone, she thought. Alone. She felt unpleasantly light; not dizzy, but as if unburdened. She could not absorb her surroundings, the gleam on the kitchen counter (for she had wandered here, to seem busy) the grey light seeping in the windows. As though they would not absorb her; the furniture, the people seemed mildly alien.
All of you. She returned to the living room, smiled serenely across the room at her husband. He was handsome, a pretty face that she still found pleasant to look at – or, she remained intrigued by his bright eyes, his unfilled promise of interesting disclosure. A pretty face. Like a good vase. Empty. Yet she kept hoping, in her better moments, that she could fill it with valuable things, valuable insights and treasured yearnings and deep sharings. Except today. And she knew in her exhausted heart, everyday.
A year ago – or so – she had trouble with time – she and Elliot had their defining fight. At least, it had been defining for her. He seemed barely to have noticed.
“You’ve taken them away. You’ve deliberately inserted yourself between me and my friends, and –“ she lost words, lost the sense of what followed.
“Marisa, you’re upset.”
“And there I was humbling myself for you,” she said bitterly. “I went, and I apologized, I apologized to them. I humiliated myself, to keep these friends, and they treated me like shit. I can’t stand it.”
“Sorry,” he shrugged, “I haven’t done anything.”
She couldn’t put her finger on it; she couldn’t name the exact time or place. It was all hints, fragments. For ten years after university, they had all – Angie, Troy, Phil/Barb, Olivia and a few others – been her friends. Then there was a decade of not. People scattered slowly into their own lives, and she into her first marriage. Then the divorce, and no friends, and then, miraculously, single, she’d re-connected. A few had completely fallen off, but the core – these six here, now, had remained, and they’d welcomed her back in. Living room couches for long discussions, barbeques, restaurants, movies together. Then she met Elliot. There was a year of bliss, a romance so romantic they even married, after that year, in a Catholic church.
Then, slowly and subtly, as she watched with a puzzled passivity, somehow her friends had become Elliott’s friends, yet not hers any more. He was charming and good-looking, and she, after all, was just an ordinary person, often without anything interesting to say. Once she confronted him about it, about all his little tricks that isolated her; like a magician with card tricks, with a little flourish he spread the deck, and suddenly they were loyal to Elliot, and cool to her. (It did not occur to her until years later, twenty years later, that he actively campaigned against her, that he went alone to visit “their” friends, to lament, in the most sympathetic way, about her faults, accusing her – but without apparent accusation – of being cold, of trying to keep their “mutual” assets under her strict control, and, oh, a hundred small sins. And even when it occurred to her, when it was plain that he must have, when there was no other explanation for the sorrow that had enveloped her, she could not be certain he had.)
A year ago – the third or fourth year of their marriage – she had tried to confront him.
“It’s hard to explain, Elliot, but I liked these friends. Yet when we were lounging on their couch you’d whisper to me, ‘These people bore me. Let’s go. Let’s leave.’ Then you’d pretend – to them – that it was me who wanted to go early. Every time you sluffed them off , it was my fault. I didn’t protest because I thought you’d get over it. It even amused me, for some reason. I was content just to be with you, I was lazy and comfortable with you, and I’d watch your – your machinations, and I wouldn’t protest. But you KEPT UP WITH THEM.” She raised her voice in frustration – the frustration of knowing, sensing, that her words had no effect on him, were like feathers thrown against a suit of armor. “You’d take my credit card before we went out, then make a show of paying the restaurant bill, and the movie, and everything. You’d never let me pay. I looked cheap. But it was my credit card. Or when it was Gina’s birthday, and I bought her a beautiful card, but before I could compose something to write in it, you signed it from both of us in your handwriting, as if it was all your doing, your thoughtfulness. And you didn’t do it just once, you did it – she couldn’t remember exactly whose, when, how many times, and she gave up, in frustration.
“Oh,” he said with a dismissive contempt, as if she was being insufferably petty, “That was nothing.”
“Nothing! You always say it was nothing! I didn’t even SEE it – or at least I ignored it. Little things! Little things always, for two, three years now! And now you’ve started insinuating to everyone that you pay for everything in our private life too, for everything, when it’s my money. I bought this place, Elliot.” (She had bought it – Elliot had had no money when they met, nor when they married – but she would consider it the apex of crassness, a loss of dignity, to assert that fact before her friends. She held the fact, the potential of revealing this fact, in reserve, as her last, desperate social bombshell, if she needed it. Like a nuke, it would contaminate victor and victim, because it would be the ultimate betrayal, the ultimate accusation, throwing their marriage – which was the illusion he built, was building, with a sort of intent, the tent he was building, the play, the story – to the winds.)
She felt guilty about rubbing that in Elliot’s face, even alone between them, so she added, “Oh, it’s all a bunch of little things!” It was half an apology for having even brought up the subject, half an excuse.
“I think you have a problem with your imagination, Marisa.”
“Then I had that blow-up, because Angie was hanging on you like a puppy dog – they were ALL hanging on you like puppies, and I – you were all over there, having fun, laughing, and I was here, in the next room, unhappy, and that’s why I had that outburst.” It sound silly, irrational, and she felt ashamed even to recount it.
“What blow up? There wasn’t any blow up.”
By saying this he made her face the shame of recounting it – or drop it.
It wasn’t that long ago, weeks. She had rebelled: she had walked away from the living room where Elliot, Troy and Angie and herself were gathered for a dinner, candles and baguettes and triple cream brie and all… She’d suddenly, without any provocation at all, stood, scowled, and left the room. At the time, she didn’t even know why she’d acted like that. It happened quickly, without any forethought.
After five or ten minutes, they called her with a puzzled tone, to come, the wine was getting stale or whatever. She called in reply, in a big voice, “You’re all false. You’re Elliot’s friends, not mine.” They’d left immediately. Afterwards, stunned by her own vehemence, she drove to Troy and Angie’s house, alone, to apologize. But the cool reasonableness with which they met her apologies showed her how far away they had already drifted. She listened with shock and outward humility as Angie said they would accept her apology ”if you can behave yourself in future.” So you’re blaming me! she’d thought, but was unable to bring herself to actually say it.
“Oh, that,” Elliot said, referring to her outburst. “I doubt they even remember. They don’t care.”
Perhaps she couldn’t explain deeply and intricately enough, or perhaps Elliot’s unconcern was somehow bad, selfish, even deliberate. She could not decide.
She felt defeated. Why was she protesting? What was wrong, really?
Behave myself in future! The phrase still boiled in her mind, as she looked coolly around at Angie and Phil, and Barbara and Olivia and Doug, Troy and – Elliot. She stepped from the living room, through the dining area to the kitchen, went blithely to the sink to pretend she was doing something.
Suddenly, quietly and calmly, smiling, she fled, back through the dining, living room, and downstairs, still pretending she was doing something.
“Where are you going, Honey?” Elliot had followed her downstairs; she had hovered too long, indecisively, on the lower landing.
“Don’t you dare.”
“Elliot, I need to lie down. Or fresh air.” She waited, seeing if he would accept the excuse.
“Okay, lie down,” he said.
She lay in rebellion, anger between her brows and breathing loudly through her nose. A hummingbird came to the bedroom window. It calmed her. She rose, to return to the get-together. With every step up those stairs, the endless days stretched before and behind her. But she stopped before her hair would appear through the white railing. She stood for several moments, heard but didn’t distinguish their chatter. A chair scraped – like a warning bell, it sent her swiftly downstairs, fleeing silently.
In the bedroom, her heart pounded. She’d ducked, she’d begun to run, had confirmed her flight.
But there was nowhere to go. She’d gone before. Gone 1,000 miles in the SUV. But she’d run, not out of money, but out of excuses to cover her motives. She couldn’t ultimately abandon the townhouse, since she owned it and it was all she owned. And the farms laid out like a carpet, the agonizingly slow crawl of her car, though she kept the speedometer high, the long miles of trees and trees and trees, the world before her an infinity of despair. None of it, the farms or fields or forests, would embrace her. She’d come back, defeated.
From the coolness of the bedroom she stood staring at Elliot’s birds. Elliot loved birds. He had two cages on one stainless steel stand in the small solarium, the bright, hopeful conservatory, like two big silver bell flowers atop a stem. In one, the yellow canary looked alertly at her, and flitted to and fro. The blue parakeet in the other cage – Parkie – plump and quiet, did not move. But he eyed her also. She stepped into the lightness of their room.
She opened Parkie’s door, nudged him to hop on her finger, then drew him out, placing a curved hand around his warm, beating body. With one finger, she smoothed his neck feathers. Then she wrapped her finger around his neck and pulled his head off.
The little body jerked and trembled for a moment. She didn’t see any blood at first, then it began to swell up through his headless shoulders, a small red pool. She stepped quickly back through the bedroom to the ensuite, opened the toilet, and dropped Parkie and his head in, and flushed. The body wasn’t going down. She reached in hurriedly, before the toilet flooded, took the ridiculously light little body in one hand, the wings in another, and wrenched them off; it took a tremendous tug and jerk. Slowly, quieter now, she dropped the wingless body in and flushed again. It whirled and dove down. The wings went next. A few pale blue breast feathers, light and curled, stuck to the side of the bowl. She reached her hand in and plucked them by the small pointed pinions. They stuck to her fingers. Looking for a place to put them, she realized red blood had flowed over a few of her fingers. She tasted it, hesitantly, with the tip of her tongue. It was hot, sweet and salty; her nose filled with the dry stink of a bird. She sucked her fingers clean, then rinsed them off….she imagined herself lying on her back on the bed, holding the blue bird’s body in both hands, sucking the blood from it, from every deep vein and tunnel…
In a panic, as if the wind was blowing through her hair, as if something chased her, she ran upstairs.
“ I don’t know what happened. I took him out a moment – Parkie – and he flew out the bathroom window and – never came back!” The windows that opened were all screened year-round; nothing could escape. She knew this, but was so enthused with her lie.
As she blurted this out, in a rush of blushing excitement, in a loud and surprised voice, in the midst of what seemed to her like a frenetic battleground (though everyone remained silent) even as she hovered on the edge of panic and triumph, something else existed – deep within her, like a seed, the memory of moments ago, when she had stood sated and satisfied, blood on her tongue.
She had never lied like this before, so purposefully and blatantly. But now that it had begun it was frightening and exciting, and she was determined to pull it off, and the certainty that she would, exhilarated her. She watched the look on Elliot’s face and hid her joyous interest, and then she turned to the others, looking directly into their eyes. How easy it was to reveal nothing of herself!
“What?” she said, “What are you staring at me for?” They all were staring, and they now all averted their eyes, except Angie. Angie frowned at her.
“I think there’s blood on your blouse,” Angie said.
“Oh my God. I cut myself. I was opening – a jar of face cream. A brand new jar. Can you believe that? A fifty dollar jar! It had a burr, it cut my finger – see?” she waved her hand, then grabbed it, hid it with her other, as if to stop it from bleeding further.
”Oh migawd! What did you think?” she cried, laughing.
“Oh my god,” she said again, and turned and walked quickly away and down the stairs, clack, clack, clack, feeling their eyes on the back of her head, her own eyes starting to brim with tears.
She took the Audi. The moon raced down the highway with her, deep into Oregon. The farmers fields were yellowed white yet dark and beyond them were the black black trees. At some point she pulled over and ran from the car where the trees were closer to the road, only a small field away. She stumbled across the stubbled field and into the black trees and stopped and yelled and screamed with rage, and frustration and regret. A sharp broken branch pierced her side, scraped a rib.
She looked around. The dark trees stood silent. She forgot where she’d come in.
She looked around. She couldn’t remember where she came in. The dark trees stood like black sentinels, subtly comforting. She took a step, deeper into a hollow in the forest floor than she expected. It was just a jolt, but taught her to watch her step. But in the same instant a sharp, broken branch pierced her side, scraping a rib. She sat down — squatted down on thigh-thick, snake-like roots — Where is the happiness I deserve? she cried to the peek-a-boo ceiling of stars in the clear black night. What have I done? Nothing more than most women. Is that the problem? That I am supposed to do more? If so, show me. Show me, and I will do this more. Until then, until you answer, I’m just gonna look after my own shit. That’s fair, right? She took a deep breath and realized she had to find her way. For the first time in years, she felt hope.
Oh, I’ve been such a fool, she thought — to be trapped like that! To let myself be!
As she climbed up on the highest roots to take a look around, to — why didn’t I leave a marker? Now that I have so much to live for, so much freedom, so many sunny afternoons and comfy evenings and bright mornings, so many to come, why now do I find myself lost? Jesus! She took her shoes off and tried out her bare feet on a nearby root.
I’ve got to approach this logically. How far in did I come? Say, how long, minutes, and so many strides per minute. So could go that many strides, or that long counting, and mark the trees as I go, then return to here. Mark here, big X. Which she proceeded to dig from the ground with her hands, as she had no knives or other tools. My God, she thought, if I hadn’t stumbled and scraped my side, I would have wandered off in any direction and been totally lost. It saved me. After awhile she said, Forgive me.
She soon found a fairly sharp rock, which was good, because her digging efforts were useless. With that stone she marked the centre tree entirely around, by clumsily stripping/pounding the bark, Her plan was to set off in one direction, as — oops, she returned to the centre tree, to mark the side of the tree she had launched from. To go so far in one direction then turn, and do this four times, circling the compass, then eight times if needed, to find the boundary of the wood. Distance. Hmmn. Didn’t settle that. I think about fifty paces, then add ten for good luck. Mark as I go, and return directly.