by Laura Fletcher
It was a fine, large-windowed restaurant she led him into, their heads already a little light from the martinis at the first bar. She wore a dress that brushed just the top of her knees, and fit pleasingly over the parts of her body that were beginning to warp with age. His shoes were shined and his blazer was well-tailored over shoulders that seemed used to stooping. He was holding her hand; her laugh was just a bit breathy.
A gentleman led them to a booth by a broad window; she pulled her wrap around herself as the outside chill seeped in through the glass. She paused for a moment on her reflection, her eyes deeply shadowed. Through the dark pane of her face, she could see flakes of snow lazily swinging their way to the ground. Her breath caught in her throat as she came to herself. Her hand squeezed the inside of her opposite elbow, the nails biting the flesh. She did not cry. She turned back to the gentleman, her eyes shining, and ordered a Manhattan. She would try not to resurface again.
Her husband regarded her, his brow furrowed, lips poised for a smile, hoping he could smile. She turned back to him. “What? We’re celebrating. And we’ll get wine, too!” she said, her eyes bright; her jaw set. He smiled a little pityingly, looking down at the table. “Yes, celebrating. Yes,” he replied; he paused as she smiled back at him, glad, but not showing her teeth. He continued: “It is a big, big deal. You should be proud.”
“We’ll pay off the house, and Cameron will be set for college, if tuition hasn’t tripled by the time he gets there.” She was ever practical in the face of transformative things.
“Even if it has, he’ll still be covered. And we could move – find somewhere bigger, by the river.” His eyes began to grow a little misty, the two martinis helping him see a back porch overlooking a gentle, green slope, a little dock, the constant, quiet hum of the water, of things that do not end.
“You know I won’t leave her house,” she said, low and direct, bringing him back to the tablecloth, the candle, how it shone on her hair. “Of course,” he said. “I know.”
Her Manhattan and his gin and tonic arrived. She thanked the waiter in a throaty way, making her eyes luminously grateful as they met his. He nodded curtly, but flushed a little. She found herself smiling – these moments of radiance were so few and far between now. She cherished them when they did arrive; she felt herself swelling with potency and potential, with power, as though there might still be things ahead after all. She took a long sip of her Manhattan, as though it could keep her there in that emitting state.
“So, what do you think; are we going to retire?” her husband asked with some joviality, as the warmth of his wife’s glow seeped into his fingertips. She bestowed her shining gaze on him and laughed, “Jonesing to be a house husband?”
“Jonesing to be a man of leisure!” and the little dock came back to him, evening, himself in a white Adirondack chair, bourbon, a book, Cameron.
They laughed together.
“$41 million…” he said, shaking his head. “It’s remarkable. You are a remarkable woman.”
Now she blushed a little, looking down, a rushing in her ears, her fist clenching below the table, every sense on high alert. And then her husband touched her other hand and she was back, dimmed, but present again. They looked at each other. He could sense tremors that perhaps she herself did not even feel yet, and scrambled to draw her gently away from them.
“Have you told anyone at the firm?” he asked, pointing towards what he hoped was a safer harbor.
“Just that we won, not how much or anything – that seemed gauche. Well, Amelia asked specifically so I told her, but that’s all.”
“It’s lucky for us they’ve been so supportive.”
“It’s counting as pro bono hours for them, so everyone’s getting what they want,” she replied. A tremor. Her eyes dropped to the table, hearing her own words, her throat catching, her eyes welling suddenly as she looked back at her good, kind husband and he, having been poised at the ready swiftly took her two hands, pressing her palms together and casing them with his, murmuring in as deep a voice as he could muster, “I know, Turtle. I know.”
“I don’t want this,” she whispered, her lashes glittering.
“I know. Me too. Me either. I know,” he whispered back, his own breath catching in his throat, leaning in as he pressed her hands again. They breathed together for a moment, then she pulled back, shaking her head, touching the corner of her eyes. “Okay. It was for Cameron. This changes things for him.”
“For us,” her husband interjected, touching his own eyes.
“Yes. Ok, yes. For us. This was for us.”
The waiter glided up to present them an amuse bouche from the chef, and to take their order if they were ready but there was no rush. They needed a moment to look over the menu.
He swallowed whole his spoonful-worth of whatever it was in one gulp; she perused the menu silently, decided, and sipped her spoon, watching him closely, still curious after all these years. He held the menu flat on the table and leaned over it, seeking without scrutinizing the first acceptable option he could find, which she already knew was the portobello ravioli.
She would test herself. “What do you think?”
“It was the first thing,” she laughed, right again, the corner of her mouth twisting. His smile was wide, sheepish, caught.
“It was the first thing.”
They linked hands across the table, as though he were going to kiss her fingers, swear fealty to her. He met her eyes, “You’re still my first thing.”
She pulled her chin down, almost blushing. “Yeah?”
The waiter returned. Their hands slid back to their respective sides. He took their order and departed. She sank back in her chair, staring somewhere past the top of her husband’s head. She slowly turned her glass, with just the tips of her fingers. She had meant to say something, there had been something…but the space before her eyes wavered towards its center, her head was light, her arms felt heavy. She drank half her water and contemplated the final mouthfuls of her Manhattan. Her stomach rose a bit toward the back of her throat as she thought of the wine that was already on its way. She sipped her water again and excused herself to the ladies’ room. Her husband grabbed her hand as she passed, and she leaned down to kiss him, touching his face.
He waited as she walked away, then gently touched his temples. His throat constricted suddenly; his eyes watered. His breath came out in a tight cough. His hands came together, covering his face for a moment, then pulled down to his chin as he took in a deep breath. He blinked hard, and busied himself with stirring the end of his drink.
She was leaning forward over the edge of the sink, observing herself in the mirror. She reached to smooth the makeup that had caked slightly in the line from her nose to the corner of her mouth. She thought again how she looked like her mother – not the way her mother looked now, but the way her mother looked when she thought of her, how her mother would have been about her age when she looked like this. And in a rush, she felt herself stretching back along the chain of mothers and daughters that led to her, the final, broken link, limp with disconnect. Her face contorted horribly as she ran the water to drown it out, but it came anyway, her mother’s voice on the phone, first with extreme pathos, then rising with hysteria, “What? She…what?” and her own inability to repeat the words, forming them with dry, heaving sobs, her mother slowly joining her as the infidelity of death settled over them both. Like a malevolent, runaway train, there was no way to stop this once it had begun – it just had to be ridden out. She clung to the sides of the sink, eyes pressed tight, until the many-fingered demons clutching her heart and lungs began to relax their vicious grip.
She shook her head, patted a wet towel to her cheeks and chest, and pushed through the door to her husband.
The back of his neck came into view first: a patch of clean skin above his stooped shoulders, and she would have briefly hated his bad posture and misaligned collar if they were not so familiar to her, and she was ready to accept anything recognizable, solid, distracting. She ran her hand over his shoulder as she passed him. He started, looking up at her, and beamed. She smiled as she sat across from him, her lips pressed together. She looked down until he broke the silence welling up between them. “We could talk a little about her.”
“What else is there to say? We’ve told every story.” Her voice was like sandpaper over skin.
“Well…we could retell our favorites…” he stumbled, “and maybe there are some we haven’t told – I just…I was just remembering what her sneeze sounded like, just a huffy little cry and not a real sneeze, just a little baby sneezy sound.”
It had been just like that. This little bundle of miraculous continuity she had not even been sure she had wanted, but who had arrived and who could sneeze. It had become as familiar as an old cardigan, this vertigo sensation, as her stomach dropped and she curled in on herself, her shoulders wrapping forward like inverse wings. She knew that if she let herself contract, if she could bite the inside of her lip and twist her toes uncomfortably against the inside of her shoes and squeeze her eyes shut, it would pass – it would wrench through her, her grief a medieval torture device, and then it could be contained and then she could return to the world. He was right. She had not thought about that little sneeze. What a gift, what a precious gift: a sneeze, a rough pearl to add to the string of others rubbed to a bright polish with remembering.
She laughed, a small, genuine, grateful laugh, and began to decontract. “Yes, okay, yes. Let’s talk about her a little.” Her mascara had smudged in the corner of one eye, and he stared at it, suddenly fixated on how she was always like this, how so much armor had so many cracks, how it just took one good pry to pull the whole thing apart, how she was infuriating in her righteousness but also sometimes had smudged mascara and he just wanted to cup her cheek and rub it away with his thumb.
The wine arrived. The bottle was good. The waiter poured, and departed.
“So, what else have you got? What else have you been keeping from me?” she asked laughingly, trying to bring some brightness back to her eyes. His face fell as though struck, shoulders stooping even more.
“You know I don’t keep anything from you.” His voice was hurt, quiet. He was looking down.
“Oh Turtle, you know I didn’t mean it like that!” She floundered, “I didn’t mean anything – I know you don’t.” She reached across the table, opening her hand for his. “I’m so sorry…I just want more…more of her…and her sneeze,” her eyes welled, she sniffed, “that was so good, such a good one. I just want to talk more about her.”
He laid his hand in hers. She gripped it. After a moment, and without looking up yet, he gripped it back.
“I have another – it was before you went back to work – maybe one of the first times we all got out of the house, and it was just going to the diner, and she was asleep and Cameron was being good and when we got there, he wanted to push her stroller.” He had been speaking with his eyes half-closed, methodically but with vague anticipation, until here where an electric shock went through them both. He snapped to face her, his eyes wide. “It wasn’t that one, it was the old one. Cameron’s old one.” They both relaxed, imperceptibly. He pressed on. “He just wanted to push it, but he was really too little, and you stood behind him and had your hands over his hands on the handles and I was walking a little ahead and I just kept looking back at you and him and her and I just kept saying ‘This is my family, this is my family, this is my family,’ and you know I almost cried in that parking lot with my heart fit to burst?”
“This is your family,” she said, her voice tight and tender.
He looked up at her, reaching his other hand up to grip hers with both. “Yes –” he blinked hard. “I love you.”
“Always. Through everything.”
They sat quietly for a moment, seeing each other. With a squeeze of his fingers, she leaned back. “I have one.” She twisted her wine glass in her fingers, then sipped it. “It was Christmas,” she paused, her breath caught in her throat, her face crumpled. “Her only Christmas….” He dropped his head too, wrung his hands while she raised her napkin to her face. They were both quiet for a moment, composing themselves. With an audible heave, she began again. “It was Christmas, and she was down for a nap…it must have been Christmas afternoon…I guess everyone was napping, because I’d fallen asleep in that big arm chair in her room. I came to with these quiet little sounds nearby – it was your dad. He was standing over her crib, holding her feet while she kicked, singing these little songs to her and she was, you know, making those little happy sounds back at him, and then I realized he’d pulled a blanket over me and I just thought ‘Oh, he’s a good protector. He’ll protect her.’” She swallowed hard, her voice cracking again. “And I didn’t say anything and I kinda smiled a little and went back to sleep thinking…thinking how…how safe we were.”
She sniffled lightly, glancing up to see the waiter gliding to the side of the table, plates in hand. She looked to her husband, his face inscrutable, trying its best to rearrange itself now that a stranger had shattered the thin, glass bubble they had blown for themselves, where they imagined themselves invisible, or at least alone, the sounds of the world muffled, they the only real things, the protagonists.
“Madame, your risotto, and sir for you, the ravioli.”
“Thank you…thank you, it looks lovely.”
“Our pleasure. Is there anything else you need at the moment?”
“No, thank you…no, that’s all.”
“Enjoy!” He glided away.
They were both quiet as he faded, each touching their forks but not eating yet.
“That’s what they were doing, you know.” He was now staring at her intently, gesturing slightly with one hand. She furrowed her brow. “They were keeping her safe. It was supposed to be the safest stroller in the world.”
“Mhmm.” Her voice was flat, but her chin raised slightly, edging it with challenge. He held her gaze, then sat back, slightly stunned. “You blame them. You still blame them?” He shook his head. “I don’t believe it. You still…do you?” His welling fury passed suddenly to the pleading of a small child. “Do you?”
He hunched forward, his shoulders round, his mouth open. He scrutinized her bowed face. He spoke haltingly, like a growl. “As far as anyone knew, it was the safest stroller in the world.”
Her eyes were squeezed shut. Her lips were thin. The floor seemed to tilt below her and she shook her head ever so slightly. “It wasn’t, though,” she barely whispered.
“Of course it wasn’t, of course. They just paid us $41 million because they were cheats and liars, and in this one, single, devastating case, murderers. But my parents did not know that,” he was almost shouting now, his face red with grief, indignation, wine. “They didn’t know; of course they didn’t know; no one knew…no one knew.”
The bubble that had ballooned around them faded again. Other tables came slowly into focus, sounds became louder, or more particularly, the immediate quiet surrounding them became louder, until they were forced to look around, to glance momentarily at the couples trying not to glance momentarily at them. His face reddened more deeply. She found his gaze, held it, hardening herself against what she was about to say. He waited, the hairs on the back of his neck rising in panic, in protest.
“Our baby is dead, and we are getting paid for it.”
She said it like it was something he did not already know. With complete clarity, he felt himself hurling his glass to the ground, enjoying the sharp shatter, shoving the table and all its contents into a magnificent and representative heap, he heard himself screaming that she was not the only parent, that his grief was also a pit that reached from his stomach to the center of the earth that no houses by the river or gin and tonics or other children could fill or close or even lessen – that he knew and he knew and he knew.
He convulsed from everything it took to control himself, and then his slumped shoulders slumped yet again toward the still-intact table. She waited, not sure if she was poised for fight or flight; the table, a tangle of plates, and one small, mangled body the only things lying between them.
He found he was still clutching his fork, and he gently laid it by his plate. He laid his hand beside it, his fingers lightly splayed. “I know,” he said, staring at the empty space in the middle of the table. “We could donate it all away, we could get divorced, we could take it out on Cameron, we could cut ties with my parents, we could commit suicide, we could both join a monastery and never speak again…and it won’t bring her back. It won’t make her even one tiny little bit less dead than she is now.”
She regarded him levelly, her chin jutted forward, her arms crossed. And then it was her shoulders that slumped, her cheeks that grew hot. There was nothing to fight, or to flee. “I know.”
He reached his hand across the table, asking for hers again. She stood instead, swinging around the table and sliding into the booth beside him, crushing herself against his wrinkled suit, his warm side. She turned her face up to his, the corners of her mouth raised in a question, an apology. He smiled back, touching the corner of his eye and reaching his other arm around her shoulders. He kissed her forehead, then adjusted his plate and, one-handedly, began to eat. She pulled her plate across the table and, between small hiccoughs, almost like a baby’s sneeze, began to eat too.
Laura Fletcher studied creative writing at Princeton University; her work has previously appeared in The Nassau Literary Review and Wax Antlers. She has been an educator, entrepreneur, consultant, product manager, and apprentice baker, though is happiest when she is a writer. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado and finds the mountains a great comfort.