Could You Be With Her Now
By Jen Michalski
The photos were black and white, color bright, and faded. Torn edges, pin holes in corners, cigarette smelling, coffee splattered. Children in jumpers clutching dolls. A man with horn-rimmed glasses reading a book. The same man and Sandra standing in front of a jaguar convertible in a driveway, his fingers curling around her waist. A different man with gray eyes, blond hair, a scar on his chin. Birthday cakes. Collies on green lawns cropped flat like carpet. Sandra spread them over the table chronologically. Grade school, Sandra's teeth as large as her eyes. Her high school graduation in 1958. Her marriage in 1960. Andrea's birth in 1963. Sandra at the piano, various years, her hair long, blond, then bobbed, then cropped close to her skull. As it was now. From left to right her smooth face grew lines, spots. Her neck collapsed in her chest. She shrunk. Veins grew out of her wrists, hands. Andrea grew larger, long bones, pointy chin, smirking, leaning against Sandra. Sandra with the same smile always, always slightly pained. Or maybe the pain was in the eyes, cloaked and wet, the thing hidden from sight. Alice could not tell.
I was playing Schumann there. Sandra touched the photo that Alice held in her hand.
How do you know? Alice put the photo down, picked up another. What about this one?
Beethoven's Sonata No. 14. Sandra let her palm hover above the photos. I remember because I loved music more than my life. That sounds so dramatic, but it's true. Please don't put that in the blog.
Alice laughed. She put her hand over her mouth. I'm sorry. I shouldn't laugh. You just surprise me, the things you say.
It's not totally true. I loved Jack, and Jack loved me. In our own ways. We both adored Andrea. I love my grandchildren, spoiled and incurious as they are. But music is an unconditional love. Unconditional in what it gives to you. Am I wrong in thinking writing is the same?
I never thought of it as something good or bad or redemptive, Alice shrugged. With the money from her first paycheck, she had brought grapes, melons, plain yogurt, pecans, for Sandra, wrapped in cellophane from the market. The paper lay open on the table, catching light kaleidoscope, the ribbon, cranberry colored, unfurled on the table glass. I never thought of it as anything except as something that was a part of me, like breathing.
Sandra picked a grape off the stem, so bulbous and waxy. She held it like a coin. If my questions aren't too intrusive, what do you write about?
Alice wrote about relationships and heartbreak and people who were unsatisfied and disaffected but whose dissatisfaction and disaffection seemed somehow larger, more momentous than other people's. She wrote about parents dying, lovers dying, pets dying, dreams dying, seasons dying, night dying, day dying. And sometimes children were born and sometimes dreams were born and days were born and certainly nights. Sometimes love was born. Alice wrote about all the things that everyone wrote about and she didn't know why hers would be any better or different but she knew it didn't matter because she could never stop. When she got home she was going to write about the bulbous and waxy grape in Sandra's fingers. Alice would write that Sandra put it in her mouth and felt it with her tongue but did not break the skin, taste the juice.
You can read some if you'd like. Alice was writing a story about her ex only it wasn't her ex. Her ex worked at the university library; the ex in her story was a veterinarian. But they both felt stuck in their relationship with Alice, who was not Alice in the story. But Alice didn't know why either ex felt stuck, why their love stopped. Or why hers had continued.
You bring a story next time. Sandra brought the grape to her lips. And I'll certainly read it.
I'll have these up on the website tomorrow. Alice put the photos in her bag. If Alice had brought photos they would be of her parents in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. A picture of her Girl Scout troop. A picture of her at the Y, her hair tucked under a pink rubber cap. Alice at fifteen with her mother after Alice's father died of lung cancer. Her mother had died then, too, but she was still living, her hands moving in dough, those hands white with the flour of the tarts and pies and bread pudding being born from them.
If Alice brought photos she would bring a photo of her ex, Lauren, the picture in front of the Grand Canyon. They had never seen a hole so big, one that could swallow them so fully and no one would know it. They held each other in front of the hole and a man from Kentucky took the picture. They smiled. Their cheeks and noses were pink. The sun bounced off their sunglasses. Nothing as big as that hole could come between them, they knew then. They could see a hole like that coming from a mile away, surely. Unless they were in the hole. It was possible that they were in the hole already when they met. But who had gotten out of the hole and who stayed, Alice was not sure.
If Alice brought photos they would be pictures that had not yet been taken. A picture of her and Lauren back together in front of Niagara Falls. A picture of Alice's mother in front of her own bakery. A picture of Alice and her father planting cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, in the garden patch behind Alice's apartment. A picture of an adopted baby in Alice's arms, Lauren grabbing one little foot, her other hand curling around Alice's waist.
Is everything all right?
Yes. Alice shook her head. Everything is fine.
Do you have time to stay awhile? I'll reimburse you.
I could stay for a little while. Alice nodded. She did not want to go home just yet, where there were pictures of Lauren and some of her things. A pair of hiking boots with a rip in the toe. Some books they had shared, CDs. Memories that still breathed the air of her apartment, although she could not see them. Even the sweater she was wearing, a caramel-colored cashmere Lauren had given her for her birthday, pulled on her, itched her with memory.
Are you going to play something?
Not just now, unless you want me to. Sandra fingered the scarf on her neck. Since Alice had come to visit, Sandra had worn a purple, a yellow, a paisley scarf. She did not like her sagging neck, the hollow between her collar bones. Would you like me to play something?
In the living room Sandra found the sheet music, Concerto in F by Gershwin. For years she had known most music by heart, but the last few years a note would fall out here, there, and she could not find it, would stop playing and begin again, only to drop a note someplace else. She began to forget entire songs altogether. Sometimes she could not reach quickly enough to the high notes or the lower notes, and her soles hurt when she pressed on the foot pedals. She had had enemies in her life, surely everyone did. But she hadn't expected her hands or her piano to turn against her.
When she and Leroy ended, she had not expected it, either. She had expected to leave Jack, to move into Leroy's Tudor across town. Leroy's wife had just moved out. In Sandra and Jack's guestroom Leroy stroked her earlobe, reached across her on the bed to pull a cigarette from his pack. Don't get me wrong, Sandy. I'm glad she's gone. I just wish she hadn't taken the girls. But at least there will be room for you and Andrea.
Leroy's wife blinked too much, looked too long, took things too far. Sandra and Jack always made a little bet before parties as to how many drinks it would take before Leroy's wife went loopy. In the guest room Leroy pulled on his pants. Jack would be home soon. Sandra always remembered to empty the trash with the condom, the ashtray with Leroy's cigarettes. Then Andrea would come home from school and Sandra let her have a Bergers cookie and they would sit on the piano bench and Sandra would play.
Alice stood by the piano and Sandra patted the seat. Here, sit, like my daughter used to. She opened the sheet music, felt Alice's weight on the bench. My daughter has no aptitude for music. None for chemistry, either. Go figure. Lazy and spoiled. Like Leroy, she thought. She could almost swear Andrea was Leroy's child. But Leroy's child was never born. Although it had lived briefly, alongside her hopes, with her future across town in the house Leroy's wife had left.
We used protection. Leroy's feet were big and white by the swimming pool. His fingers probed the horizontal scar across his chin. Leroy never told her how he got it, and she liked that he didn't. Sandra envisioned Andrea taking her laps every morning in Leroy's in-ground, her long limbs slicing through the water, no sound, a predatory prepubescent blur of flesh and pink lycra. How could this have happened?
The condom must have broken. She wrapped her shawl over her shoulders, feeling the ice from his glass rattling in her stomach. He put the glass to his lips, two ice cubes with a last lick of gin, and sucked on them. He pressed his eyes shut, felt for the sunglasses on top of his slicked hair, pool wet. Leroy, it was an accident, but surely it's a good thing?
Well, Andrea and I will be moving in soon. We'll be starting… our own family.
My wife is moving back in. He put the glass on the table, thud, and the wet around it grew like blood in a cloth. I'm sorry, Sandra. She just can't make it on her own.
What about me?
You've got Jack, Sandra. Old dependable.
What about—I can't just toss it away like a napkin. She dabbed at her eyes. Water everywhere. Blue eyes, blue pool, blue gin. Three miscarriages before Andrea. She hoped she would miscarry this one, too.
I'm not saying that. I'll pay for it, I'll take you. I want to be there for you through this.
And after this?
Sandra didn't blink too much, look too long, take things too far. At parties she sat in the corner and played the piano, hours and hours until her fingers numbed, until Leroy joked they should put out a tip jar, and she looked through him and asked him to make her a martini, yes, Jack makes a dreadful one, doesn't he? Four, Jack held up his four fingers and nodded at Leroy's wife, staggering like a doe across the room.
I'm sorry. Sandra pulled her hands from the keys, turned to Alice. My hands hurt. Her stomach still turned when she thought of leaving Leroy's that afternoon. She was dead then but something in her lived on and when she killed it, after a day in bed with towels pressed between her legs, her fingers still played, yearned for keys, for something. Jack bought roses, yellow, and that evening when Jack went back to his equations, she pushed the thorns against her stomach, her wrists, plucked the buds and ate them until she was sick.
She had not had a lover after Leroy. It was not because she loved Leroy more than anyone else. It had just been too much trouble. Not the secrecy, but the pain. She had driven the Jaguar out to the Tudor house, watched Leroy's wife herd their daughters outside to drive them to the swim club. It was cool for October, the girls' faces stretched and their eyes thin with petulance as they plopped in the back seat, clutching their duffels of swim things. Sandra followed them. It would be so easy to sit on the bleachers next to Leroy's wife, as the girls knifed through the chlorinated water, and mention that Leroy's dick curled to the left and didn't she find that most odd? Leroy's wife was suspicious of all of them, Jean and Georgi and Sandra, as was Sandra of Jean and Georgi. It had not surprised her later to find out that Leroy had had affairs with all of them, but by then it had been too much trouble to care. By then Andrea was into boys and there were dances to plan, dresses to buy and hem. By then Leroy's hair had begun to thin and Jack was his supervisor.
She did not go into the swim club that day. She went to the doctor's office, where she was headed in the first place. Jack could not get off work. There was the conference in Toledo and he needed to get his lecture done and make sure the young chemists were ready with their poster presentations. Couldn't she ask one of her friends? How about Jean or Georgi? But Jack, I need you. But Sandra, my dear, I just don't believe that it's possible for me to make it. And why not, then? Well, because I just don't believe the baby is mine.
But he brought home yellow roses. Why roses, why yellow. Why anything. Then he moved into the guest room. And Sandra stopped cleaning it.
Did it get better for you? Alice's voice was quiet.
It hurt less. Her voice was even quieter. Jack moved back into their bedroom when Andrea left for college. The war had been over for years. No one had won. They had simply stopped fighting.