Winter 1995, Volume 12.1
Between the Thorn Bushes
Joy Passanante teaches writing and literature at the University of Idaho. Her work has appeared in Short Story, One Meadway, Long Pond Review, College English, Field Guide to Outdoor Erotica, and several anthologies. Her story "Absence," published in June 1992 in Alaska Quarterly Review, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Read other work by Joy Passanante published in Weber Studies: Vol. 18.0.
She likes feeling like a marauder as she peers into the sheet-curtained window of the apartment house. In the mud between the rose bushes, the toes of her sneakers sink slightly, making fresh prints. When she moves closer to grasp the ledge and ground herself, removes her gloves, reaches up and clicks her fingernails against the pane, brambles catch her jeans. The naked thorns remind her that this is still Valentine's Day: the pink bud, the flaming petals; she thinks often of what is not there. She tries to peer through the crack between the sheets, to see if her drawing is taped to the refrigerator with the dog-eared schedule of Sierra Club films; the copper-tinted poster of last year's Folk Music Festival in Portland; the postcard-sized Corot print—the thick peasants, the tree-shaded meadows, the dots of light looking like white chrysanthemums. Hers is taped on a slant: a brush-and-ink rosebush, rather stark, blossomless but strong; her Valentine's gift.
Smiling, Thane lets her in. After closing the door behind them, he says, "I was hoping some vision-lady would tap on my window and interrupt my homework."
Lydia sheds her nylon jacket and the white plaid gloves she bought in Edinburgh. She remembers how when they first met she tried to look professional, to wear a skirt and blazer, as if there ever could have been a distance between them. She remembers how he was dressed in the uniform of students (at least those who weren't crooning frat songs and guzzling Michelob Dark fishbowls at Gambino's): jeans; navy T-shirt with "Idaho Is What America Was" in neon green across the chest; beard. She noticed the books covering his card table, took in their seriousness: Nietzsche, not Hesse; Bellow, not Uris.
"You know," she says, looking at the place where the books were spread, "I wondered as soon as I walked in here why in heaven's name you advertised for a tutor. Who could resist an ad for a tutor in art history, for Godssake." Her eyes crinkle in a smile. "And I still don't know what you thought you'd get."
Although his beard usually camouflages his emotion, his dimple makes a pit in his cheek and she suspects that she may never find out. This knowledge washes warmly over her, and she places the flat of her hand gently over his face. The hair is the color of the wheat fields curving over the hills north of town in Indian summer. It's still not bristly, as if he has smoothed it with the yellow baby brush she uses for her daughters.
"I used to try to hide my hands from you," she feels compelled to confess. "When I was your age they were milky and smooth. The knuckles didn't sag. My fingers weren't scarred from gardening." She sighs, though she feels soothed knowing that gardening is not a mere obsession for her but a solace. Sometimes when the anxieties became sharp and fragmented in her head and piled up like dirty diapers, when the boredom choked her, she would flee to the morning glory and uproot it, releasing from its stranglehold the strawberries and the dahlias that would have to wait a long time to bloom—as if she were weeding out the choking forces from her own life, at least for a time.
He lifts her hand from his cheek, though her other hand is simply hanging unoccupied at her side, and examines the scars the brambles have etched.
"Some design," he says.
He offers her tea, and they brew their own varieties, cup after cup, sipping it and letting the steam float into their mouths, naming each of their inventions: Idler's Tongue, Virgin Style, Barnburner's Curse, Serenity, even cups from the same pot differing in intensity and cloudiness.
"Wish we could read the tea leaves," she says, watching the green liquid darken into a shadow.
"Why not, you jerk?" she grins.
"I just don't want to, all right? C'mon. Get off my case, Bakker."
She stands, as if to go. "How're the kids?" he says, sounding as if he really wants to know. He always asks about them when the conversation gets dangerous. It shifts the danger to her. She sees in the shadows and clouds swirling in the teacup Kate's small fists and Rosalind's face, the face only Lydia is allowed to see, the throbbing black eyes, the cheeks sucking furiously on the thumb.
He catches the slight tug of her lips, the drooping of her lids, and he rises and offers his arms as if he were holding an enormous balloon; and when she steps into their circle, he folds his arms around her back.
* * *
She spends the next afternoon at home. She places the needle carefully over the disc. "Locomotion," "Light My Fire," "Shout," carry all the beats she has missed by having pronounced them ludicrous, degrading, crimes against culture—when she was too young to know herself. On the table in the corner, baby Kate, wrapped in a receiving blanket like a sausage in its own skin, squalls between sucks on an inch-long thumb. Lydia turns up the volume until the floors throb. This is how she has taught herself to dance, in the glass over the framed pictures. Her body superimposed over the orange dog in the Gauguin, and her gyrations, light-shadows, dancing on Rembrandt's velvet-robed aristocrats, eternally still and cautious, removed by centuries, distance, paint and glass. The music is immediate, fills her head with noise, sensation a synapse away. She's critical of her shapes reflected on the glass, wants to learn, apply her dusty academic skills, knows the importance of criticism. She decides: do her breasts shimmy too desperately? does her slightly open mouth look desirous, or gaping? do her eyes look eager, or glazed? She needs the new image. If Kate doesn't quiet right away, at least her cries are muted by the blasting beat of the music. Lydia lets it blast and blast.
The evening before Rosalind's kindergarten hearing test Jim comes home early. She sees his glare examine the surfaces of the house. They bicker about the soiled cribsheets piled on the stairway, the cheese-crusted pots littering the stove. And when, later, he complains about the spot on his vest and heads for bed with a journal in his hand, like Ros with her ragged lamb, Lydia decides not to sleep next to him and stays up half the night watching constellations—how simple and immutable they appear framed like a triptych in the bay window. She recalls the first night she stayed up past his bedtime, turned out the lights in the living room, opened the drapes and stared at the studs in Orion's belt. And wonders when it was that she met that man with the open smile at the party, when it was that her gaze swept to his belt, that she realized for the first time those lost years had changed her.
The next day Jim tries to be solicitous. "That time of the month," she explains. He kisses her forehead, relieved. His kiss reaffirms how many things she wants to keep secret, how much of her own life she wants for herself. The secret life—after she has been so open to all guarded people, so giving to all takers—pulls her toward itself, tempts her as no one man, no strong neck, no pelvic arch ever has.
When the grey light returns and the electric garage door has banged shut, she fills the morning with fantasy after fantasy, sometimes ending with the hands on her hip, sometimes beginning there, trying to see herself, her possibilities, from all angles, around all curves. The baby seems to want to stop these visions and gives herself to screams. When Lydia convinces herself that no pin is scratching the soft flesh and that the Pamper is still dry and powdery, Kate tries another technique: sudden silence. She holds her breath, sucks in air, refusing to let it free until she turns purple and Lydia has to snap her index finger on Kate's tiny foot to shock her into breathing.
Once they meet at her house. Jim is in court. Her friend Mary Ellen has taken the kids. Thane sits at the edge of the brocade couch, his fingertips grazing the satiny roses. Behind his head is the middle bay window, in the center of which hangs a prism on a velvet ribbon. Pink and green ellipses swoop and dance over the oak desk that has been in Jim's family for decades. A swirling oval of blue, a disc of yellow in tandem. Lydia has told Mary Ellen that the landlord is painting Thane's apartment so that she must tutor him today in Jim's study. She offers him tea in the living room; he shakes his head. She goes into the kitchen anyway and brings out a silver tray with two long-stemmed glasses of clear liquid and two linen napkins embroidered with lilies-of-the-valley, white on white.
"Don't tell me," he says. "They've been in your family for centuries."
"No," she says, "I made them," and his dimple appears. She sets the tray on a round table in front of him and sits next to him, on the edge as he is, but close enough so that they touch from the floor along the lengths of their bodies to the shoulders. As he raises the glass to his mouth, she raises hers, and they drink elbow to elbow. She delights in his seriousness, in his refusal to be mocked, his ability to sustain a charade indefinitely.
Later when they are upstairs, on top of her patchwork quilt, the phone rings. "Let it go," she whispers into his mouth. He, on top, picks up the receiver and holds it to her ear. It is Mrs. E. Gordon Richter from the Psychoanalytic Foundation: would Lydia serve on the board again this year? Lydia is saying one thing to Mrs. E. Gordon Richter with her mouth and another to Thane with her eyes. He is moving inside her and making faces. The receiver is still in the air on its path back to its cradle, when he bellows out a laugh. He rolls onto his back, pulling her on top, and, although he has often told her that he doesn't think they should have to say the obvious, says I love you and they say it into each other's ears and necks and mouths.
That night, after Lydia and Jim have turned on the dishwasher, covered Kate, taken Rosalind to the bathroom, brushed their teeth, and flicked off the hall light, she notices one of Thane's hairs on her pillow. She doesn't move it; Jim seems to sense something, smiles at her from his bureau, but his eyebrows come together and she sees that he is worried.
In some ways she wants them all to know, the Mrs. E. Gordon Richters, but especially the other wives who gather in coveys at cocktail parties or coffee klatches and puff smoke while they exchange particulars about Pappagallo's new lines, tidbits about their children's teachers and orthodontists, and recipes that cut calories in half. She wants them to know that she has little of this sort of information to offer them, wants them to see that the properties of her world can't be expressed in numerals or reduced to ingredients. But for now she smiles and nods in all the right places, and the other wives still invite her over for bridge and brunch. She knows if she even whispered the details in her mind they would see only half of her.
So when she notices the blond hair she lowers her head on top of it, and it falls into place with her dark curls.
* * *
The girls have been ill, so she hasn't seen him for days and kisses him impulsively while they are still in his doorway. Coming out of the kiss he says, "I saw Jacobson the other day. Chowing down a Big Mac."
She tries to search his face. She laughs. "That's a fine greeting. Besides, I wouldn't have thought you'd be caught dead in a place like that. What did you have—a soyburger with yogurt sauce?"
"Your point. I saw him through the glass."
"On one of your brooding walks, I bet. Maybe you'll win the Lord Byron walk-alike contest."
He sighs. "Anyway, I saw him."
"No. Jacobson. I saw Jacobson. Though probably not as much of him as you do."
"What's that supposed to mean?" she asks. He stares at the peeling linoleum and shrugs. She probes on. "What do you think, I'd worship the body of the captain of the football team—like a cheerleader in a pony tail? What's got into you?"
"Don't kid yourself. He may be next."
She can't tell if he is kidding or not. Her breath catches for a millisecond, then she forces herself to recover. She can hear it, the droning as if on a static-plagued record stuck in one place, Jim's voice: "You tutoring that kid again, that what's his name? Zane? Thorpe? That junior college is sure getting its mileage out of you. You know we don't need the money..."
And yet, she isn't altogether certain her husband has not calculated this rhetoric, prepared this record, to cross-examine her response. The canny attorney wearing down the witness, stating the same question again and again, waiting for the answer to what he can't ask.
"Besides," Thane's voice pulls her from her thoughts, "cheerleaders don't wear pony tails any more. You're showing your age, Mrs. Bakker."
That night she tiptoes past Rosalind's room, the door to her dark child, the child who lies awake with her black eyes open for hours, for years sucking her thumb in an unfathomable rhythm. The child who was born dreaming, her eyes rolling behind the translucent lids even as the doctor sliced through the cord, severing forever self from self. The child who intrudes when Lydia even thinks about lying with a man other than the child's father. The child who asks Lydia's friends to sleep in her own little yellow room, in her small bed. Sometimes Rosalind waits until Lydia's vision is clearly in focus, until Lydia, staring through the newspaper or out into the dark window above her dinner dishes, imagines another man's slow hand. Rosalind interrupts without knowing she is interrupting, insists with a shriek or a whine or a simple flat repetition, "Mommy, let's pretend. You're the mommy and I'm the oldest little girl." And for hours Lydia pretends to be the mommy. She hasn't seen him for days. She is wearing the nylon jacket and white plaid gloves and doesn't bother to take them off when she taps at his window, so her signals are muted. He doesn't hear her right away, and she watches his shadow through the hanging sheets. When she finally gets his attention, she steps gingerly around the flowerless garden and toward the door. He opens it and stalks in front of her through the vestibule back into his apartment. He throws himself onto the couch and waits. She carefully closes the door behind her and is almost afraid to turn back toward him. It occurs to her that she really hasn't known him very long.
"Are you OK?" she asks.
"No, but sit down."
She tries to outlast him, but she is afraid that he can hear how fast her blood is pumping. She tries to wash all expression from her face. Inside, it seems damp and she shivers in her jacket. The bookshelves are stark and cold-looking. She has never before noticed that they are grey steel, and it takes her a second to realize why: they are empty. The closet is open and the hangers are bare. A green sleeping bag is unrolled on a mattress with yellow stains. She starts to remove her jacket and then stops, only partly because she feels a chill. She tries to control the chill by making a joke. "I refuse to strip until you put the sheets back on the bed."
"Very funny, Bakker."
"C'mon. Nothing wrong with a little middle-class American hilarity." She waits. "Actually, I'm serious. What'd you do with all your things?"
"Are things all you can think about?"
Even her eyeballs feel the chill of this empty place. That her voice catches a bit, that her lips are so dry they are sticking to her teeth tell her that she is losing control.
She tries again to salvage the situation. She dives to retrieve the wreck.
"You know it isn't. You know what else I think about." Her voice, though low, echoes slightly. Faint traces of self-mockery.
"I'm moving," he says.
"In with a roommate." Then, when she says nothing, "I need the money. Is that OK with you?"
She stares at a nail on the wall above his head. On it used to hang a Van Gogh print, that lonely road he did at the time just before he jammed a gun barrel into his surviving ear. The blue and ocher and burnt orange strokes snaking up toward the free skies of oblivion. She thinks she can still see the shape of the picture, the small, square, paler area where the dimestore frame protected the wall. She starts at his voice.
"Now what would the infamous tutor of unsuspecting youngsters be doing with tears in her eyes?"
She stares at him as he glares at his left shoulder and chews his beard. His arms are folded on his wool shirt, hiding the ripping pocket from her view. His face, in profile, looks even more tender, the skin ruddy against the honey-colored beard. His eyelids are lowered, perhaps in suspicion, perhaps in hurt.
"You planning to enter a Lord Byron brood-alike contest? A prize for the best pout?"
She waits for him to say, "Very funny, Bakker." But he sits so still that she listens for his breathing. Then he turns slowly, unfolding his arms, eye-slits burning, and he stands up and walks out his door.
She walks into his kitchen, takes out the tea and a chipped white mug from a cardboard box on the counter. She boils water, returns to the card table and sips tea for a while, doming her hand over the mug so that the steam moistens and warms her palm. The other hand she wraps around the porcelain. When the tea is cold and her hand clammy, she pours the liquid into the sink, washes the mug, and closes the heavy door behind her quietly.
Years of careful programming have taught her to function around the thorns of despair, have trained her to ferret out sources of help. So the next morning after Jim leaves, she calls Mary Ellen, crying. In spite of Mary Ellen's foray into other women's secret lives, she is the perfect boss's wife: from the chill of her white china at dinner parties to the sailor suit on the baby. Mary Ellen has three of her own children, and when her league bowls every Thursday she takes them to the nursery under the lanes, where their shoes are tied and their bottoms are wiped to the rumble of fiberglass balls on parquet and the crash of lead-centered wooden pins. Now, she parks her green Fiero and comes in the back door to help. Lydia picks up the baby, kisses him, makes him gurgle, and feels better. She tries not to wish it were her own child who has made her feel better.
"You're good for the soul," Mary Ellen smiles. Lydia knows Mary Ellen believes this quite literally, that she sees her soul as a distinct part, ultimately the only valuable part.
"Everyone's but my own."
She works hard to try not to think. Using that space in her mind that has been Thane's, she worries over selecting the slides for her art class, being meticulous, writing long-overdue bread-and-butter notes to the wife of Jim's partner, formally accepting Mrs. Richter's invitation to sit on another board. Every so often she worries about the effect of that rumbling on Kate's ears. She goes out to lunch and drinks champagne cocktails both before and after, and manages somehow to obliterate the day. Jim takes them all out to dinner, where she listens to both sides of his current case, wishing that instead of a war over tax deductions it was a murder trial, as she wipes the ketchup from Rosalind's blouse and blots the milk-puddles with Kleenex.
She doesn't like to turn out the light before she finishes the day—even a difficult day. She's lying in bed, quilt up to her chin, not reading, not thinking, but letting the tide of night wash over her at its own speed. Jim is already snoring upward into the column of space next to her.
Yet she doesn't hear the noise from outside until she has clicked off her lamp, and at first she thinks it is hailstones from a sudden storm. They pelt the window like buckshot, then stop, then pelt again. She thinks of a baby rattle, a New Year's noise-maker, a secret code—all at the mercy of some capricious or otherwise uncontrollable being.
Suddenly she tears off the sheets, rushes to the window, insinuates herself between the glass and the curtains, a closed backdrop behind her. Her unprotected nipples graze the pane, and her nose presses on it slightly as, cupping her hands around her eyes, she leans forward to see who is out in the dark. It is a clear night, and the hard rain-sound has stopped as soon as she opened the curtains. But she thinks she can hear his footsteps in her garden—the snap of the bare stems, the crush of the roots—and see the vapor from his sighing as he waits for her.
She knows she can outlast him. She stays there until she is aware that her feet are numb from standing still. Then she walks back to bed.
In the morning she awakens before her family and tiptoes downstairs. She doesn't remember having slept. The planked floors feel icy, and the bay window is laced with frost. The prism in the center swings in an almost imperceptible arc from the wind penetrating the glass. The prism throws color helter-skelter into the room. She sees, now, not the weaving of the pastel patterns, not the dance of the rainbow, but fragments of blue, green, pink, yellow—their separateness, their isolation. The light is clearly from a winter sun.