"Life had been perfect then, but I’d been too busy to notice, the universally fatal lapse." From today's thoughtful story "Sea of Tranquility" by Beverly Akerman.
With this posting, Writing in a Woman's Voice goes on a three day sabbatical and plans to return on October 17, 2016.
SEA OF TRANQUILITY
by Beverly Akerman
There’s a quality to this silence that makes me think I should have faked it tonight.
“You okay, Hannah?” Cal says into the darkness.
“Yeah, don’t worry about it,” I say. “Must be the phase of the moon or something.”
We face one another, feet touching in the middle of the bed, our bodies forming a misshapen heart. Each of us has the white sheet tucked under an arm.
“Hannah? You sure?”
“Yes,” I answer, a shade too emphatic.
He reaches out and grazes my cheek with a finger.
I pull my head back, say goodnight, turn away. He moves closer, tucking under me until we’re spooning. It isn’t long until I hear his breathing deepen and elongate, cresting like ocean waves.
I close my eyes, try to sleep, knowing very well I cannot. The clock reads 2:57 am. I reach for the small pill I left on the night table, just in case. It glows red in the light from the digital display; I’ve only recently figured out how to take it without water.
A neighbour’s cat yowls. I picture the moon, lowering over the horizon. Cal turns, rustling the sheets. Tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow I’ll tell him I’m leaving, if I can think of someplace to go. I’ve tried not to make a big deal of it, thought it was temporary, an erotic hiccup. But it’s been a couple of months now since I’ve been able to come. I’ve taken it as a sign, promised myself I would leave if things didn’t improve. There have to be consequences; what’s missing is too basic, like the steel girders that hold a skyscraper upright. I can’t just go on pretending nothing has changed.
At first, I did fake an orgasm or two, but of course, Cal noticed. And that hangdog look he gave me, well, that really had been beyond the limit. Surprising, really, given everything else I’ve managed to live through. It isn’t anything Cal has done, or left undone, it’s more like some primitive lizard-brain circuit has broken.
It isn’t something I’m aware of having chosen.
Cal’s a software engineer. On a good day, he calls himself a code jock. We actually work at the same university though in different departments, a coincidence we discovered that first night at the Lamplighters. He’s short and chunky, with a dimple on his right cheek and wavy black hair. I usually find nail-biting a disgusting habit, but somehow with Cal I don’t mind it so much.
Waiting for the pill to kick in, I crave distraction, but it’s the middle of the night. Outside it’s still as the sepulchre. Then I remember the news today, that glimpse of the last of my childhood icons, the giant Guaranteed Pure Milk bottle. The Mayor’s decided it’s got to go, after years spent rusting away, untended, the company defunct, in an area of downtown overdue for renewal. I’ve always loved it, this piece of genuine Montreal kitsch, propped up on scaffolding ten stories high, tilted to the side as though just about to pour.
Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, when I was growing up, the Guaranteed Pure Milk Company would deposit two bottles, two percent butterfat, at the door of the upper duplex where we lived. And in the winter, when I returned from school at the end of the day, a glacial column of milk would have pushed the white, green, and orange cardboard tops up and out from the glass bottles. My mother never remembered to come down and get them.
In those days, my family took in foster kids. My mother’s idea, like most that went on in my family. She’d read some heart-melting newspaper article about unwanted kids, and then talked and talked and talked till dad finally said okay. He’d kick up a fuss sometimes but ultimately agreed to just about anything she asked of him. The social worker showed up the very next day.
We weren’t well off but my parents weren’t in it for the money. In fact, I’m pretty sure we lost on the deal. We were always giving those kids more than the agency saw fit to provide. Like the time thirteen-year-old Colin wanted sealskin boots, “like everybody else had.” Sealskin boots were the kind of thing you just had to have, to fit in back in 1968. Not that my parents indulged me that way. Like those white go-go boots I wanted that ended just below the calf, zippers up the back finishing in large gold hoops. The agency paid for a foster kid’s boots, sure, but not for sealskin boots, so my parents made up the difference. Maybe it was because they felt bad for the kid, having lost his family and all. Maybe they thought if they couldn’t give him his family back, the least they could do was make sure he got those boots. I hadn’t really minded though, Colin getting his dream boots when I didn’t get mine. Even then I recognized it was a fair enough trade.
Perhaps I have always been a little too accepting of whatever it was that fate dished out.
For two years now I’ve been with Cal, since a little after Molly died. I met him at a Lamplighters meeting, ‘support and self-help for bereaved parents.’ His marriage hadn’t survived his son’s passing, either. Four years old. Leukemia. Before it happened, I would have predicted nothing could be more depressing than sitting in a room filled with grieving parents and grandparents, sometimes brothers and sisters, too. But I would have been wrong.
Life had been perfect then, but I’d been too busy to notice, the universally fatal lapse. My daughter Molly was something special, not quite three, with a tiny, perfect rosebud mouth, a messy crown of chestnut curls and a laugh that helped me finally get the point of those feng shui waterfalls. Such a little thing, I never would’ve believed she could open the door off the kitchen.
She’d always been an early riser; it was a source of friction between Eric and me. We’d tried ‘Ferberizing’ her, lying in the basement holding each other as she screamed her lungs out. But I couldn’t do it, didn’t have the necessary ruthlessness to be that kind of parent. Several times we consulted the pediatrician about Molly’s sleep patterns, desperate for some strategy that would allow us, finally, to sleep past five-thirty in the blessed a.m. “Don’t worry, she’ll come round eventually,” we’d be told as we sat there, bleary-eyed, while little Molly chirruped and gambolled.
That morning--I’ll never forget it--I woke with a start. Glanced at the clock: 8:25 a.m. We hadn’t slept in like that for months. Years, maybe. For a moment I luxuriated in it, stretching like a cat. I felt so good, like I might finally be in control of my life again. Car doors slammed, kids called out to one another on their way to school, a lawn mower started up in the distance. Sunlight sifted round the edges of the curtains, filling the room with a lemony glow. A cardinal was singing. Maybe Molly was settling down to a reasonable schedule. Finally. Had to happen sometime, didn’t it? I rolled over and kissed Eric, snuggled a hand down, caressed him awake. “Good golly, Miss Molly,” he whispered, smiling. We stayed there together another half hour or so, enjoying a little mental health day celebration.
I was the one who found her, floating, face down, just after nine. We’d had an above-ground pool installed earlier that spring. It was the only time she ever managed to get out of the crib on her own.
Cal turns over, tossing a leaden arm across me. I push it off, but gently. Shifting onto my back, I sigh. I try the deep, diaphragmatic breathing my therapist taught me, counting down, ten in, hold it one-two-three, ten out. I finish all ten breaths, but still there’s a knot in my gut. I get up, go to the window, push dusty curtains aside. The moon, its outline softened by clouds, floats like a fluorescent smear in the sky. I stare till I feel the chill, then pad back across the hardwood and slip back into bed. I pinch the bridge of my nose with thumb and forefinger, screw my eyes tight, but I do not cry. Something else, there has to be something else.
When I was a kid, I walked to school and back, lunchtimes too. I’d meander, especially in winter, taking my time, kicking through the slush at the edge of the street, clearing a careful path for the snowmelt to reach the sewers. It left me feeling virtuous, even civic-minded. One Tuesday, I arrived home after one of my massive water diversion projects to find the milk bottles missing. I opened the door, and slowly climbed the long, dark staircase. At the top, as usual, I kicked off my boots – my shoes remained stuck in their detested bottoms – and was gratified to hear them clunk their way down, hitting every step, coming to rest against the front door where my dad, as the next scheduled arrival, would have to push them aside. But he never minded things like that, the things kids did that annoyed most grown-ups; he was good that way.
My socks shimmied half-off, I imagined myself as Godzilla stumping down the hallway toward the kitchen, sing-songing “hi Mom, I’m ho-ome,” as though anyone could possibly have missed the commotion. Mom was in the kitchen, as usual, but there was this little child perched on the Formica countertop, hunched over as though trying to disappear. It offended me; we weren’t allowed to sit up there. There was something about this kid, though, something that kept me from saying anything. The milk bottles glistened beside her, covered in rivulets of condensation.
Mom caught my eye. “The social worker brought them in,” she said. She put a hand on the girl’s head. “This is Cindy. She’s going to stay with us awhile.”
“Hey Cin,” I said, shrugging off my jacket and snow pants. The kid bowed her head, then looked up at me, her eyebrows knitted together. “Where will she sleep?” I shared a room with my sister and we were already pretty cramped.
“In a sleeping bag on the floor for tonight. We’ll get bunk beds tomorrow, hopefully.”
I figured the agency must have promised them. “Can I sleep on top?”
“We’ll see, honey.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off this kid, there was something funny about her. Her mouth, it looked smudged somehow. The two halves didn’t meet cleanly in the middle, with one side looking as though it had been folded on top of the other and pressed in place.
“What’s with her mouth?”
“She has cleft lip and palate. That means her lip and the roof of her mouth didn’t form properly when she was growing in her Mummy’s tummy. But they’ve already operated on her once, and when she gets older, they’ll fix it so you’d never know.”
“How old are you anyway, Cindy?”
After a moment’s silence, my mom answered for her: “She’s five, but she looks quite a bit younger, don’t you sweetie?” She smoothed the girl’s messy hair. “They said it was an emergency, that they couldn’t leave her at home for one second longer.”
The inflection in my mother’s voice told me this was serious business. I looked Cindy over again, taking in white baby shoes, a horizontally patterned jersey that snapped at the neck. She was awfully small, dressed more like a toddler than a kid who belonged in kindergarten. A diaper lurked beneath the grey corduroys. Her hair looked ratty, like it hadn’t been washed in a while. And meantime she still hadn’t uttered a word.
“Can’t she talk?”
“Sure she can talk, she’s just shy, that’s all. Aren’t you Cindy?” My mom gave her a friendly squeeze but Cindy stiffened, snuffled loudly, and erupted in a phlegmy cough. Yuck, I thought, somebody better get this kid with the program.
“C’mon Cindy,” I said, picking her up and snuggling her onto my hip. I had younger cousins and was already an old hand at babysitting. “She can have my bed, Mom, okay? I can sleep on the floor.”
“Wanna walk,” Cindy said, so I put her down. I felt a wisp of a hand slip into my own.
“I’ll show you your new room, you’re sharing with me and my sister. Do you know there’s a full moon tonight? We’ll go out later on and I’ll show you, okay?”
Cindy wouldn’t look at me but she nodded, putting her fingers in her mouth, like she wanted to jam the whole hand in there.
A few weeks before Molly died, we’d decided we were ready for another baby. After the drowning, Eric honed in on that baby like a man thirsting in the desert inching toward the promise of a shimmering mirage. But I realized I couldn’t go through with it. Just knew it, the way you know gravity before anyone’s ever explained it. And I knew nothing Eric could say would change my mind; he was starting to seem more and more like a mirage to me anyway at that point, and so was our marriage--hazy, indistinct, maybe not even really there. When I finally told him how I felt, that I’d secretly gone back on the pill, the light leaked out of his eyes completely. That night he packed and left--I wasn’t sorry, exactly. Anyway, I’d studied physics. It was inevitable, like a Newtonian principle: for every action, an equal and opposite reaction.
Soon as I could, I went back to work. Medical research. As a student, it seemed so altruistic but in practice, for me, it came down to decapitating mice and fishing out their intestines for molecular transport experiments. It took a lot of concentration and a lot of equipment: cages, balances, water baths, shakers, flasks, medium, test tubes and pipettes, alcohol, dry ice, a round fluorescent magnifying loop with a hinged arm, a miniature guillotine of stainless steel, scalpels, and a host of other sharp instruments. I was relieved to lose myself in something so absorbing, grateful not to have too many of my own neurons floating around, underused. And three nights a week, I went to Lamplighter meetings in musty church basements all over Montreal. They never force anyone to tell their story, or even to talk at all. A person could just sit there all night, only listening, drinking a scalding liquid that tasted more like melted brown crayons than coffee, so that’s what I did. I never cried. I just tried to make sure I never went home alone to that empty house. The pool had been done away with even before Molly’s funeral; somebody’s brother-in-law took it down, I think. I was pretty doped up; the details are mercifully obscure.
Cal’s the only one who’s made me feel much of anything, since it happened. I have no idea why; he doesn’t seem much different from any of the others I’ve brought home. But every once in a while when I’m with him, even if for the briefest instant, he will touch me and I’ll get the feeling that maybe my life hasn’t already ended, that maybe the future is still possible.
Cindy bloomed in our family circle, her baby shoes soon traded up for classic red-leather Mary Janes. One spring morning, we both woke early. When I checked, Cindy’s diaper was dry, so we rigged up the toilet seat insert and she gave it a go. The smile on that kid’s face as she heard her own tinkles, so broad it looked like her upper lip might tear right apart again. I found a pair of honeycomb-quilted training pants in a bureau drawer and told her she was a big girl now. “You can wear underwear, just like everybody else. No more diapers.”
I was as proud as she was.
Then one night, my mom went to the movies with a friend, leaving dad to take care of us girls. At bedtime, he scooped Cindy up, the littlest one, tucking her under one arm. “Let’s read Good Night Moon,” he said, “Okay, young lady?”
“No,” Cindy answered in a tiny voice, struggling a little in his arms. “Let me go,” she whispered. Either he didn’t hear her or he didn’t get it, I was never sure which. Maybe he thought she just didn’t want to go to bed; I’ve always had the feeling dads could be kind of dense.
“Let me go,” Cindy repeated.
My dad kept on walking toward the bedroom, whistling, oblivious, till Cindy threw up. At first, we thought it was a virus or something, but it kept happening, whenever my dad tried to do something with her. Then came the day when he put Cindy on his lap to tie her shoelaces and she wet her pants. After six months without any diapers. Mom called the social worker. Something had happened between Cindy and her father, though I was never told what, exactly. I just got a long lecture from my mom, about not talking to strangers, especially strange men, about never leaving Cindy alone outside.
Another day, not long after, I rounded the corner after school in time to see a police car peeling away from the curb in front of our house. It was the first time I ever felt my heart fall. For a moment, I just stood there and then ran the rest of the way home, throat tight, my head pounding, and rushed inside to find Cindy in my mom’s lap, in the rocking chair, my mom wiping her own tears away and Cindy howling, inconsolable. The police had taken Cindy’s father. He’d shown up to bellow and rage at the front door, his fury echoing, amplifying their terror, as it mounted the long, dark staircase.
After that, I spent even more time with the kid, talking, reading stories, teaching her to play jacks and other simple games with cards or a ball, things any normal five-year-old girl could do. It was 1969, men were going to the moon, and the infinite universe became my new passion, the sky, the planets and stars. For the science fair, I was making a model solar system, covering foam balls with papier mâchée, painting them, rigging little motors that spun them round their axes. I let Cindy help. My project made the finals in the regional competition and this so impressed my parents they gave me a small telescope to mark the occasion. We gazed at the stars and the moon, tried to locate the Sea of Tranquility. I taught Cindy to recognize the Big Dipper, that the sun was a giant ball of fire.
Cal’s dreaming. “No, no,” he says. Then something I can’t catch, something not quite words. He’s too close now, making me feel too warm. I try to put more distance between us. As if that’s possible. Cal’s a good man. Has a stutter his parents spent thousands trying to cure. He told me it only shows up when he is tired or stressed, which, when I think about it, should be all the time, at least since I’ve known him. But maybe not. Maybe after the worst happens, the thing you can’t even imagine, you relax, sort of. Maybe there’s a version of freedom that comes with being pre-disastered.
We don’t talk much. I’ve heard him describe those twin deaths, his son and his marriage. I’ve felt him inside me. What more do I need to know? It’s enough that he’s gentle, that he’s here. Not much of a life, Cal and I have, but for a while there it seemed like enough for me, an acceptable form of limbo. Or is that purgatory? My theology’s a little rusty.
How naïve the young are, how complacent, believing that they deserve success, their good fortune, because they’re good people, doing everything right. That when bad things happen, it’s just karma, because ‘what goes around comes around.’ Positively Old Testament, isn’t it, an eye for an eye and all that. Amazing, really, anyone can still see at all. Nothing more than a shared delusion, the idea there’s any justice in this universe. There isn’t. I know. I’ve looked for it. Everywhere.
The waif with dirty hair and baby clothes grew six inches and gained eleven pounds in the short time she was with us. The social worker announced herself pleased. Cindy was doing well in kindergarten, reading even. And we’d become inseparable. I was closer to that kid than I’d ever been to my ‘real’ sister, closer than I would be to anyone else, ever. And that, I know, was the original sin.
Early summer, Sunday, late afternoon. The two of us begged to go to the park before dinner. It was a languid day; the house smelled like roast beef and apple pie. My mom didn’t want us to go, but our chores were done, I pointed out, and my homework. I was pretty relentless, and she finally gave in, telling me to take my watch, to be home for six-thirty.
At the park, we threw ourselves into it, climbing the jungle gym (though I was afraid of heights), making mud pies in the sandbox, tumbling down a grassy slope over and over again, laughing. Everything was lush, green and blooming, full of possibility. School was almost over; I was teaching Cindy the chant ‘no more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.’ She giggled every time she said it; she loved being naughty. I could have sworn there was perfection in the slant of the light as the day began to fade. We were on the swings, a persimmon smudge in the sky.
“Six-thirty, kid, time to go,” I said.
“Can’t we touch the moon, Hannah, just once more? Pretty please?”
Sometimes a sliver of moon appeared in the sky, and we’d imagine that if we went high enough, we could sail into space and be the first girls in history to set foot on the moon. It was irresistible, our secret fantasy, and so I gave in, in love with my role as the indulgent older sister even though I knew we should be leaving. Then Cindy asked if we could swing together, instead of side-by-side, so I put her on my lap, holding her close. Cindy in my right hand, the swing in my left, I flew through space, hair streaming, legs pumping.
“Higher,” Cindy shouted, “higher.”
And there we were, stretching, stretching, doing our damnedest to touch the moon. Cindy squealed in delight, but suddenly we were pivoting, slipping backward, tumbling back to earth. I fought to stay upright, to keep hold of the swing, to make sure that if anyone hit the dirt it would be me alone, that Cindy would only thump harmlessly against me. And in that, at least, I was successful.
I lay flat on my back, dust rising, gobsmacked. The swing jangled against the metal post, seemingly miles above me. Cindy was crying, my head hurt, my back hurt, my everything hurt; I may even have passed out for a moment. The swing set looked bizarre, strangely distant, like the walls did when I had a fever or lay in bed late at night, overexcited about something and unable to sleep. Winded, I struggled to catch my breath. And then from an eternity above us, from so far it away they might have come from outer space, two arms reached down to pull Cindy from my clasp. And even though I’d never seen him before I knew it was her father, and I just . . . let her go. We were two young girls, alone and vulnerable. I’ve told myself every day since then that there wasn’t a thing I could do about it, but I will always know the truth.
Five a.m. The sun might be rising but I do my best not to acknowledge it.
Anorgasmia--I looked it up--can be primary or secondary. More frequent in women than men, often caused by antidepressants, sexual inhibition, sexual trauma. Not quite the end of the world, as I well know, having lived more than once through the end of the world.
Cal rolls over toward me again, reaches out and curls himself round me; we’re spooning again. “Enough tossing and turning,” he says, “we’re on the way back up, you know we are.” He murmurs this into the nape of my neck, kissing me there as though sealing a promise; it makes me shiver. And suddenly the whole thing--what he’s said and the way he’s said it, the kiss, the shiver, this whole long night--resonates somewhere inside me, like tumblers turning in a lock. Then I feel it--sleep staking its claim, moving through my bloodstream, merciful, like forgiveness, flowing from wherever it’s been sequestered all this time. And all at once it’s so easy, falling asleep, like slipping away, into the clear blue sky or beneath still waters. And I realize that maybe I shouldn’t leave Cal just yet, maybe there is something between us. That even the smallest bit of something is worth more than a whole lot of nothing.
We did get several phone calls from the kid, crying and missing us, in the weeks right after she disappeared. Cindy’s father must have placed them, trying to calm her down maybe, or trying to drive us all crazy, who understands such people? It just about killed my mother; cured her forever of foster kids.
At breakfast one morning a couple of years later, mom let out a cry as she dropped the container of milk she’d been holding. She just stood there, one hand covering her mouth. I thought she was watching the mess as it spread across the linoleum, but it was Cindy’s photo she was looking at, there on the milk carton, under the caption ‘missing.’ They never did find her, not even a trace.
For years afterward, I’d lie outside on summer nights with my telescope and aim for tranquility. I’d trace the Big Dipper, stare at the cold-hot stars, wondering where Cindy was. Imagining--praying?--the kid was somehow safe and loved, that maybe she was gazing up at the self-same sky.
Thinking of, remembering, someone like me.
* * * * *
"Sea of Tranquility" is from Beverly Akerman's 2010 book The Meaning of Children.