Featured in Colorado Review
Yolo CountyFeatured, Fiction
Published Summer 2011
On a hot, dry afternoon in May, Miriam didn’t bother to double-check her calendar and was half an hour early to a baby shower. Although she was friends with the woman for whom the shower was being thrown, she’d only once met the host, Christy, a tall, efficient redhead. But Christy told Miriam it was good timing, because would she mind watching her daughter—a one-year-old, almost a toddler but still a baby really—while she went upstairs to change?
Not a mother herself, Miriam felt anxious, but the baby drummed small plastic buckets with a wooden spoon while Miriam sat on the couch, browsed through a catalog, and sipped lemonade. She saw the baby toddle toward the coffee table and reach into the cup, but Miriam looked back to the catalog. For years afterward, she would replay the timing: maybe five seconds before the baby fell, two until Miriam looked up, and another five before she pressed a finger down the baby’s throat and felt ice too jammed to pull out, too big to push down. Christy ran downstairs and pounded the baby’s back, pumped her chest, and held her upside down. Three, four more minutes and the baby stopped moving, but Christy bounced her as if she were still alive as she pulled back the curtains to look for the ambulance.
Miriam had been studying a velvet skirt, mauve with opalescent buttons along the hem, not her style but still quite charming. She told no one about the skirt or seeing the baby reach for the cup because the lie that she’d turned to move a balloon from the heating vent came so easily.
Christy asked Miriam not to come to the hospital. Alone in the house, she thought of cleaning up the buckets and wooden spoon, the balloons and streamers—and the cupcakes, bruschetta, daffodils, and duck-shaped confetti—but the prospect was too grotesque. She thought of calling the guests to explain but couldn’t bear doing it, and so she turned off the lights, drew the shades, and lay on the couch while guests rang the doorbell, understanding that she was outside society now and might as well grow hard.
A week later, Orin, the man whom Miriam had been dating for almost a year, met with Christy’s and her husband’s lawyer—no charges; Christy blamed herself—and express-mailed Miriam the DVD box set of Middlemarch. When she didn’t pick up his calls for three days, he brought the dvds into her house himself along with her junk mail and bills. He said all she had to do was sign the checks, which she did, and then they ordered Mexican food. Life went on like this: she stayed inside, and he provided food and film adaptations of elaborate British novels. After two weeks, she returned to her job reporting on arts and culture for the San Francisco Chronicle and began seeing friends only enough to convince them she was “doing fine.” But the only person Miriam really wanted to see was Orin because he didn’t demand happiness or even alertness.
She was thirty-seven, and he was fifty-two. He was divorced and had retired a few years earlier from a lucrative career as a tax lawyer-turned-investor and now devoted himself to refinishing antique wood furniture and selling it to high-end San Francisco boutiques. That was how they’d met, at a furniture expo she was covering for the paper. His ancestry was Finnish, and he looked like a cross between a wolf and golden retriever. Pink cheeks, silver hair, white poofs at the temples, and an optimistic, devoted smile.
After the accident, time moved slowly, but eventually summer came; in August, an artist couple, Ted and Ellie, asked Orin to take care of their farm because he’d been there before and knew how to water the orchard and pick the peaches.
“Come,” Orin said.
It was a Sunday night, Indian food and The Hound of the Baskervilles. He studied Miriam’s sink full of dishes and lifted a jam jar spotted with what looked like blood clots to reach two bowls, which he began to rinse while she imagined a magazine exposé called “Kitchens of Killers” with photos of lice kits, frozen cats, and romance novels.
Orin said Ted and Ellie had a garden. “Why not?” he asked.
Many reasons, she said. For example, she’d let a child die and had spent the past three months crying, watching movies, and gaining weight.
“Four days,” he said. “It’s not huge commitment.” Despite being a craftsman now, he still made logical lawyer points.
“I can’t,” she said. “I’m damaged. You’re like the surgeon with the pole dancer and we all wonder what’s wrong with you.”
Orin was scrubbing forks. “You aren’t a pole dancer.”
“I bring you down.”
“Come,” he said again.
“I can’t,” she said. “Peaches are for nice, happy people. I don’t want to look at trees and sunshine and not be able to be there.”
“There!” She couldn’t think of what else to say. She meant that self-hate and regret were hammering against her brain so persistently that the peaceful, ordinary world—her old world—was something she could only squint at. Even seeing Orin rubbing forks with a rooster-patterned dish towel was too much. She didn’t deserve him. She didn’t even deserve roosters.
“You don’t even like to normal dance,” said Orin, studying her seriously. He spooned rice into the bowls, ladled the lamb rogan josh, and globbed on the mysterious yogurt sauce. He handed her the forks, a small bouquet. “You’re coming, whether you like it or not.”
The drive from San Francisco to Yolo County was two hours. Miriam swallowed Dramamine but woke on Route 16 where the heat was parched and hazy. The oaks blended with the hills’ yellow-gray grass, and on either side of the highway, there seemed to be the same crop. Spinach or lettuce, she couldn’t tell. They passed a farm with orchards, the next with a baler and hay. At the intersection with Yolo Avenue, they stopped behind a cement truck.
“It’s so farmy,” she said.
“Yep,” agreed Orin. “We’re a goin’ to a farm.”
She lowered her window and lifted her long, black curls over the headrest to get a breeze on her neck. They traveled through the towns of Esparto and Guinda, turned up County Road 64, passed a few houses and above-ground pools, and drove maybe another quarter mile until they saw a periwinkle clapboard house and a long gravel driveway, where they parked next to a thick-trunked tree with a rope swing. As she unbuckled her seat belt, it occurred to her that she and Orin had never been alone together this long. They’d spent a weekend at Stinson Beach, but that was with friends, and now, looking at the yard, more dirt than grass, she wished for the ocean. But here I am, she thought. I watched a baby choke to death, and now I’m at a farm with Orin Forrest.
She stepped onto the grass and barfed.
In the kitchen, he found crackers, and she washed them down with tap water. “It tastes like rocks,” she said. “Hard water. Hard like a rock. The Hard Rock Cafe! I don’t know.” She laid her head on the table. “I’m sick.” The kitchen was like a cafe. Glittery filaments squiggled through the aqua tabletop, black and white linoleum squares covered the floor, and ridged, silver edging lined the white laminate countertops. Orin was complaining about the angle of the driver’s seat and trying to touch his toes. An upside-down triangle of sweat darkened his lower back, and he let out a sulky grunt. When he said something about getting the cooler, she couldn’t summon the energy to lift her head. Blinds over the sink dimmed the light. She remembered lying on Christy’s couch and pushing the catalog under a basket of blocks.
After her nap, Miriam threw up again and told Orin a birth control pill or two may have been missed, along with a period. Passive voice? he asked. It wasn’t on purpose, she said. God, no! She was living in a world disorganized by sorrow. So he drove into town, bought kits with wands, and, three tests later, she requested a minute alone and sat on the porch while he watered the garden.
She did the math and could only be as far as six weeks. Not that bad, she thought. A backed-up period, a few cell divisions, the spinal cord thing that happened right away. And a spinal cord didn’t matter—right? A baby was a bad idea. She wasn’t married and couldn’t even keep another person’s baby safe for five minutes.
Her watch said a little after eight, but the sun had only just begun to lower itself toward the horizon of trees. The orchard wasn’t as pretty as the ones by the highway. Here, the leaves were brownish, there was no grass carpeting the aisles, and the dusty ground was studded with rocks. The yard was even less verdant. In the center, there was a depression in the dirt as if an animal had rolled there obsessively. In fact, there were more bald patches than grass. Dust bowls, dying towns.
Miriam pulled her legs to her chest and rested her forehead on her knees.
Slowly the light diminished and the air grew cooler. Maybe fifteen minutes passed before she heard Orin trudging across the yard and looked up to see him carrying a stick the size and shape of a large animal’s antler. He sat next to her and rotated it to show off its crooked spokes. “Isn’t this cool?”
“No,” she said, with more snap than she intended. Even though she didn’t feel pregnant, he was absolutely not pregnant, and this made him seem dumb. “Didn’t you think God was more sophisticated?” she asked. “One baby dies, and now he’s giving one back? I didn’t think redemption could be so—literal.” Neither she nor Orin was religious, but the pregnancy made her feel obligated to acknowledge religion existed. “Maybe God is punishing me,” she suggested, fatalistically whimsical. “Not only did I kill one baby, but now I have to do it again.”
“Stopped saying you killed it,” he said. In his right ear, the silver hoop he’d gotten at the height of his post-divorce recklessness reflected a tiny bit of light as he gazed across the yard, drew in a breath, and furrowed his brow. A breeze rustled through the orchard, the swish sounding like her thighs rubbing past each other when she wore nylons. He said, “Let’s think about it step-by-step.”
“Okay,” she agreed. “Here are the steps: Consider keeping the baby even though I know I won’t. Get an abortion. Say I feel terrible even though I don’t, or say I’m fine even though I do feel terrible.”
“Will you feel terrible?” Orin asked earnestly.
“Are you saying I should?” asked Miriam.
“Good. Because it’s not terrible. Women do it all the time.”
Orin rested his elbows on his knees, laced his fingers together, and bowed his head like a baseball player on the bench. Miriam wanted him to agree that women did get abortions all the time, but instead he said: “We could get married.”
Her brain was still on Christianity, and she heard Mary, or merry. “Married?” she asked.
He looked at her. “I’m serious.”
Her mind was so worn out she felt stoned. Or maybe it was the sky darkening to purple, the yard growing blue and shadowy, or the headache tightening across her forehead. She rubbed her fingers out along the arch of her eyebrows, pulling the skin as if giving herself a facelift. “So you don’t like bastard children?” she asked.
“Screw you,” he said. He dropped the stick, stood up, and she listened to the spring and slam of the screen door, then his boots tromping down the hall. Damn it, she thought. Orin deserved better. He loved her. He was good and hopeful, brought takeout and movies and held her in the night. He’d done her taxes!
She’d considered the marriage question before, of course, and it wasn’t a deliberate decision to avoid it. The opposite, really. Getting married was the deliberate thing, dating unsuccessfully the natural state. Plus, Miriam had a penchant for unsuccess. Orin, with his furniture, silver hair, and earring, was both promising and ominous enough that when he asked for her number she said okay. In the months following, however, she grew to appreciate that he was more settled into himself than younger men she’d dated, not scrambling to prove himself. That he was not as odd as he had appeared—not strange at all, in fact—defused her cynicism and, in a paradoxical turn, kept her interested and led to a loyal, chatty friendship with enough love pats and sex to be called romance.
Ten years earlier, he’d divorced a pediatrician, Jane, because she’d finally confessed she didn’t want kids. Do you want kids with me? Miriam had asked, hearing the story. Not if you don’t, he’d said. I’ve learned to take things as they come. And besides, I’d be seventy by the time it went to college. She hadn’t told Orin, but—before the accident—if he’d pushed to have a baby, she would’ve agreed to try. Their old ages combined lowered the chances of conception (or, she’d once thought), and this had seemed about right. A built-in ambivalence.
She stayed on the porch until it grew so dark she could barely see the antler stick. Inside, the house was empty. The clock said nine o’clock. Where was Orin? she wondered. She was both lonely but also relieved, lacking the wherewithal for another round of discussion, and so she decided to have dinner on her own. In the pantry, she found mint tea and the bread and cheese Orin had bought along with the pregnancy tests. As she waited for the water to boil, she noticed a bulletin board filled with photographs of beaches and graduations, weddings and grandchildren, a toddler holding a bottle and staggering, off-balance but ecstatic. The kettle shrieked, but she could not do the work to lift it.
A book on grief suggested imagining tasks in the smallest of steps. Turn off the stove, put back the bread, put back the cheese, put back the tea, turn off the lights, walk to the bathroom.
The bathroom was beautiful, as if Ted and Ellie had had to fix something and decided to go all out. White tile floor, white walls, a blue-paned window in the shower, and, on all the walls, built-in shelves holding tidy stacks of silky towels, royal blue and light pink, magenta and robin’s egg. She slipped off her sandals and undressed in front of the mirror. Except for swelling in her breasts, she looked the same: black hairs around her nipples, thick black lashes and brows. A sad mouth, green eyes, and a spread of freckles across her pink nose, childlike now against the crow’s feet.
In the shower, she thought about meditation. Five years ago, she’d taken a class at the YMCA and begun sitting on a flaxseed pillow in her bedroom for ten or twenty minutes a few times a week. She could never discuss her pursuit without irony, even with Orin, even though—or because—she thought concentrating on present moment and nonjudgment was more real and beautiful than any other way of thinking. But since the accident, she’d rejected it despite her therapist (a few months, too expensive) saying it might help her feel less guilt, or at least reach acceptance. Kübler-Ross, yada yada. But Miriam argued that people accepted death only when they hadn’t caused it. Orin pushed self-forgiveness with logic. It could’ve happened to anyone. How could you have known she wanted the ice? But the more he reassured her, the worse she felt, because the only good explanations didn’t apply to her. Not everyone would’ve been flipping through a catalog. She did know the girl wanted the ice.
As Miriam raked shampoo across her scalp, she closed her eyes and focused on the water beating against her neck, felt the warm rivulets curving down her calves, and concentrated on her breathing, until a hollowness expanded in her stomach and a tightness seized her throat. She had to open her eyes, to look at the windowsill, the shampoo bottle, the remnant of soap as orange and translucent as a hideous amber pendant.
The bedroom wasn’t a room but a screened-in porch. The bed was a futon covered by an aqua and peach chevron-patterned bedspread, and the bedside tables were tree stumps sanded and stained a deep, reddish brown, the material of carved bears. As she toweled off and pulled on sweats and a T-shirt, a row of sunflowers with platter-sized heads leaning against the screen seemed to watch her. She lay on the bed, propped herself up with pillows, and was wishing for a trashy novel or magazine when she heard boots stomp across the porch and the front door creak open.
After Orin came into the room, he sat on the edge of the bed, faced away, and untied his boots. The slump of his back made him seem more discouraged than mad.
“What were you doing?” she asked.
“Walking,” he said, tugging slowly at his laces, which were covered in dust.
“This room looks Canadian. Do they have sunflowers in Canada?”
“No,” he said. “Too cold.” He left his jeans and shirt in a heap on the floor and, wearing only his boxers, stretched his long, delicate legs on top of the covers. “I want the baby,” he said.
She thought about nonjudgment. “Why?”
“It’s our baby,” he said, pronouncing it bay-bee. “It’s biology,” he said. “The cuddle hormone. Oxycontin.”
“Tocin,” she said.
“I was being ironic,” he said.
“That’s not irony. Maybe a pun, or what’s it called when you replace one word for another?”
“Malapropism,” he answered absently.
Frustration bloomed in Miriam. “Why do you know all these words? Can’t you be just a little less—competent?”
“You’re the one asking me,” he retorted, swiveling his neck to face her. “Do you think you’re just talking to yourself all the time?”
“Yes,” she said, trying for cute-honest, he rolled onto his side, away from her. She reminded herself to focus on her breath.
After a minute or two, he said: “This might be our last chance.”
A good point, she thought, and therefore manipulative. “Speak for yourself,” she said.
He pushed his butt a little toward her and pulled his knees up a few inches. The adult’s version of the fetal position. “Why don’t you want to have it?” he asked.
Was he listening to her? “In no particular order,” she began. “One, we didn’t plan to have a baby. Two, I just let a baby choke to death. Three, I’d be a pariah. Imagine me walking around, as big as a house, and everyone thinking: ‘To have a baby after what she did!’”
“No one would think that,” he said.
She rolled her eyes. She couldn’t tell if he was being supportive or just naïve, but either way, he wasn’t getting the point. “Orin, I can’t. All I had to do was watch a baby for one minute and I couldn’t even do that.” She paused, waiting for him to respond, but all he did was sigh, switch off the lamp, and pat her thigh so he could lift the covers. Between the stiff, orange sheets he spooned her and put a hand on her stomach. Other mothers, she imagined, researched the dimensions and location of their uteruses, and how to tone them up, keep them safe, but she just felt—well, herself. A blob of bread and cheese.
The suicide watch had ended a month after the accident when she told Orin, her family, and her therapist she really, truly, 100 percent wasn’t going to do it. She didn’t want to be alive, yet the finality of death terrified her. A little hope then, said the therapist. No, just want, corrected Miriam. A want for the accident never to have happened. She understood going back in time wasn’t possible, but in her gut another, deeper logic told her it was. The time it took for the girl to grab the ice was so short, couldn’t the moment be reversed just as fast? And what were the chances of being on that couch, with that child, at that instant? Weren’t there things so unlikely people can’t prove they exist? But proof was everywhere—billboards, grocery stores, babies themselves—that we were all babies once, that anyone could die at any moment. When she wasn’t thinking about the girl, she felt she’d forgotten something and, until she remembered—a few seconds, half a minute—she couldn’t concentrate on anything else, a constant patting of pockets for keys.
A few weeks after the accident, Miriam had gone to Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral on Union Square because the Catholics had a God who knew the drill. There, she knelt like the old people in frowsy coats, the hard-working and good, all pressing their knees against the cushioned rail, and she told God that she’d become better, and—if she could make a selfish request—that she needed a sign she wasn’t terrible. But after she’d made this plea, when she opened her eyes and looked at the painting of golden angels above the altar, she heard God say that in the case of a child’s death, relief, of which there was a limited supply, went to the mother. Then Miriam had rushed across the Square to Macy’s where she’d bought 75 percent–off Christmas cards decorated with “Far Side” cartoons.
Miriam was recalling this the next morning, a morning full of shrieking birds, heat, and gray light. It was the odor of dust that had made her think of the church. The clock said a bit after five, but she knew, they way you can, that there would be no falling back to sleep. Next to her, Orin breathed heavily and smelled of sweat and unwashed hair, and he didn’t stir as she lifted the sheet and slipped her feet into her flip-flops. It was Friday, their first full day at the farm.
In the kitchen she stationed herself next to the sink in case she had to throw up. Out the window, the sky was full of white, dun, and streaks of pink. The flat light illuminated the chain-link fence at the edge of the road, the weeds growing a foot high by the posts, the metal rickrack pressing into the grass, and behind, more weeds, the road with its tire ruts and center line of grass, and on the far side of that, another fence, and another orchard, and the horizon of blond hills smudging into blond sky. Over all of it, Miriam felt suddenly, profoundly, ecstatically territorial, as if she had lived here all of her life, or all of another life.
God, she wanted coffee. Her temples cramped and pulsed, but imagining the smell churned acid in her gut. Already this baby was overthrowing the most basic pleasures. If she kept it, gone would be hair dye, sushi, sleep, movie nights, maybe even her job—because who could afford child care? But who could afford anything without a job? Christy and her husband could’ve spent thousands in just that one year. If in vitro, tens of thousands. Not that the money had been wasted, Miriam thought quickly, guiltily. It just struck her, how much one gives to a child.
She put on water for tea and chose a handmade-looking mug, brown speckled with black, which she held to her chest as she leaned against the counter to steady her nausea and lightheadedness. Neither pregnancy nor five a.m. were for the faint of heart, and as abruptly as her feeling of belongingness had come, it left. The kettle whistled and she turned off the burner. She set down the mug, ripped open the envelope of a tea bag, but was interrupted by a creaking of the bed, footsteps, and Orin in the doorway, his hair on the left side flattened, eyes half-closed as if he were a cow sleeping standing up.
“I’m sorry I woke you,” she said.
He shrugged, eyes still squinty. “Did you have trouble sleeping?” he asked. He was in his boxers, and his skin was pasty in the pale light.
I don’t belong anywhere, she thought. She did not know how to explain it, or if the feeling was going to last, and so she said: “You look like you’re taking an eye exam.”
He lowered his chin coquettishly. “Maybe I am.”
This was post-fight conversation, she realized: goodwill lacking content. Orin looked so pitiful and drowsy she felt tender and protective. “Do you want toast?” she asked. “Coffee?”
“No thanks,” he said, a bit grumpily. He leaned against the door frame and absentmindedly lifted one long foot, curled his toes under, and cracked them against the linoleum. Like a gymnast, she thought. The Yolo County Olympics for beautiful, sleepy middle-aged men. She felt full of luck and absurdity. She pulled out her tea bag, unwound the string, and narrowed her eyes at the tag. “‘Here you are,’” she read aloud. “What does that mean? Like, ‘Here’s your tea bag’? ‘Bon appetit’?”
She looked to Orin in conspiratorial disbelief, but he only smiled weakly and seemed to be considering going back to bed. “It doesn’t mean anything,” she pressed, even though she knew it did. She thought of her meditation and felt embarrassed, secretive. “Don’t they have an editor?”
Orin cocked his head to the side and studied her. “Why do you like hating things?”
Steam rose from the mug, and she hovered her palm over it. He was right, she thought. She did hate things. But wasn’t it her choice? And not too hard to psychoanalyze? How quickly, she marveled, had she and Orin tripped into the vortex of a fight, and how suddenly, strongly, did she want to be alone in her apartment with the internet, the New York Times, and water that didn’t smell like vitamins, all to be enjoyed without the worry of an argument, or of another person wandering in.
Ha! she thought. Pregnancy. Wandering in—that’s a good way to put it.
She felt clammy and hungover, woozy from lack of sleep and a persistent sensation of motion sickness. She turned to Orin, who was leaning against the door frame and studying the floor. He lifted his gaze, and she saw—or hoped she saw—an equal fatigue, a tiredness too tired to divvy up blame.
“I’m exhausted,” she offered. A non-apologetic apology.
“I know,” he said, softly.
There was nothing more to say, no logical conclusion to an illogical fight, and so Orin padded back to the bedroom, leaving her to prop her elbows on the counter, press the heels of her palms together to make an upside-down prayer, and sink her chin into it. The problem with Orin was that he had a good attitude. He believed in rules. He told her not to evaluate people based on where they went to college. He told her not to put her feet against the back of someone’s seat in the movie theater, or swear on the subway, or use the gym towel she’d stolen only a little bit on purpose. If she confessed about the catalog, he wouldn’t lecture her. It would be worse: sweet reassurance mixed with unspoken disappointment. But it was not fear of his judgment that stopped her from confiding but rather the belief that if she waited long enough she could learn to stop thinking about what she’d done.
For now, her mind drifted back to her real life. On Monday she’d have to scramble to finish a story about an alternative ballet company, pick up groceries, and fit in a trip to the gym, not to mention cleaning her desk and throwing out whatever had rotted in her fridge. Funny, she thought, how similar keeping house was to tending a farm, how they both came down to facing chores.
Sleep was a lost cause, and so she walked to the orchard, down a row flanked by snarly, pale trunks and canopied by branches thick with leaves and heavy with peaches. Sprinkler heads shaped like spurs studded the rubbled dirt. She trudged ahead for about fifteen minutes until she arrived at a field of gravel and yellow grass where, maybe ten yards away, a trio of peacocks was strutting along, towing their enormous behinds, seeming not to notice her presence. She’d last seen a peacock while reporting on the opening of an aviary, but it was a single albino one perched on a swing. The members of this little family appeared more content, or at least normal-looking.
Back at the house, Orin was sitting in her spot on the porch and finishing a glass of orange juice. “Have you seen the peacocks?” she asked, plunking down next to him.
Swallowing, he nodded. “Weird, right?” He wiped his lips with the side of his hand and set the empty glass in between them on the step. Again she thought about telling Orin about the catalog, but the event now struck her as irrelevant as it was important. You are on a farm, she thought, pregnant with the baby of Orin Forrest, a man you’ve known less than a year and a half, who’s saying people named Ted and Ellie are worried about harvesting their peaches before they spoil.
Orin picked the low-hanging fruit while Miriam climbed a stepladder and wedged her feet in the Vs of branches to reach the highest and deepest clusters of twos and threes whose miraculous perfume was part of the beauty she’d worried she couldn’t enjoy. She felt a compulsion to tell the tree: Kick me out, I’m not who you think. But trees don’t judge, and she kept collecting fruit in her apron’s voluminous pouch; as she tucked each pound against her stomach, she imagined growing fat just by letting weeks pass. People said time healed, so how about nine months? When her caches grew too large, she surrendered them to plastic buckets which, once full, Orin lugged to the garage to store in the shade.
They finished three trees, eight buckets. By five o’clock she’d emerged from the shower and changed into clean jeans. In the kitchen, Orin had begun to boil pasta. “Pesto okay?” he asked.
She sat at the table, and he brought her a glass of water. Without stating it, they’d agreed she was mother with child, Mary on the mule. He went to the cupboard above the sink and brought down a colander with chipped, red paint and set it in the sink. From the refrigerator, he pulled a jar of pesto and knocked it against the counter and twisted the lid until it popped. The oil had separated, and he got a fork to mix it back in; but when he began to stir, the jar overflowed.
“Whoops.” He chuckled and used the side of his hand to wipe the oil into the sink.
She felt envious of his equanimity. His ability to find pots in other people’s houses, to make mistakes without overreacting. Little things, but they added up. He was easy to be with. He pulled his weight. He would make a good father and husband. So why was she hesitating? Their love was born of disaster and loneliness, lack of better options. But why else did people get married, if not for lack of better options?
As the sun set, they ate at the picnic table. He’s beautiful, she thought, looking at his earring, the sun in his cheeks, and his turf of silver whiskers. Never had she seen him not shave for so long, and she felt a poignancy close to pity. Whiskers, things of puberty and old age. Her father hadn’t shaved in the hospital after his heart attack, and as her grandfather’s hands trembled and his skin shriveled, he had let patches of white sprout around the melanoma scars and in the canyons in his jowls. So much human body ahead of her. Birth, slime, diapers, shit, vomit, menopause, grandchildren, cholesterol, cancer, wheelchairs, death. She would be seventy-five when he would be ninety. She’d be tooting around and with the program, part of the generation that called seventy-five the new sixty-five, while ninety would be still be the old ninety—old. And so she’d be left essentially alone with an adult child, grandkids, if she, or Orin, or the baby (god, the baby) even made it that far.
She watched Orin twist pasta onto his fork. Watched him chew, watched him wave away a mosquito, watched him pick up his napkin and wipe the whiskers above his lip. Orin Forrest. How had she arrived here? We could get married. Every direction her mind moved, it banged up against the girl, the ice, the skirt, the buttons, the way Christy’s blouse had been only half-buttoned and Miriam had seen her beige, lacy bra as she pumped the baby’s chest. Miriam couldn’t untangle memories from decisions because the past and the future had fused, were swinging her front to back, side to side, and dizzying her into paralysis.
He was asking her what was wrong, but she could only hear the orchard’s sprinklers sputter, hiss, and begin their fast gunfire. She pictured arms of water sweeping through each other and wondered if the peacocks had a place to hide out, thought about the damp lawns of childhood nights when she’d drop into sleep, certain, as children are, that time only moved forward.
The next morning, Saturday, their second and last full day, Miriam woke up to the fragrance of butter and cinnamon. In the kitchen, Orin was tending a griddle of French toast while wearing blue boxers and a San Francisco Chronicle T-shirt with a picture of the Golden Gate.
“Is this okay?” he asked. “Barf-wise?”
She couldn’t really tell. She got water and sat at the table. The spinning blades of the fan seemed too close, the sizzling griddle too loud, and when Orin rubbed her shoulders, she flinched.
“It’s too much,” she said. His touch seemed to be a request for something she couldn’t specify but still didn’t want to give.
After they ate, he carried his book about stock trading down the hall and into the bathroom. She looked out the window to the neighbors’ fence and unkempt pasture, and the far-off hills, their yellow ridges, blotches of oak, and shadowy cleavages colored the dark bronze of evening shoes. Hundreds of miles behind were the bridges, buses, office buildings, and steep, paved hills that held her and everyone back from the ocean.
In the orchard, she worked faster now, with better balance and a sense of which yellows, corals, and reds would loosen easily. Pushing her head deep into branches frightened her less, and she didn’t mind leaves and dirt falling close to her eyes. She found peace in the cycle of weighing herself down, unloading, and beginning again, and she tried to meditate, to recognize her thoughts but let them go. She pictured the orchard, yard, road, highway, and miles of trees, crops, and yellow grass stretching across Yolo County, and tried to imagine releasing what she’d done into the air. But as soon as she considered this, sadness rushed back in. Not for Christy or her husband but for the little girl herself, who was missing everything.
At sunset, Miriam and Orin ate salad and leftover pesto at the picnic table. The sky had gotten dark fast, and in the kitchen she’d discovered two makeshift votives, stubby candles melted into the bottoms of fruit jars, which cast just enough light for them to see their food. Orin didn’t pour any of the wine they’d brought, and she thought of all the progressive husbands she knew, gallantly offering to share pregnancy hardships. She’d never imagined herself part of that. She’d always hoped these men swigged vodka behind freezer doors, because what was the point of such denial?
“I want wine,” she sighed, unfolding her napkin and arranging it in her lap.
Wings flapped over head, and she and Orin looked up. The three or four birds were white and fast, fat but graceful. “Owls,” said Orin, and a few hoots sounded as the pale figures faded from sight.
“What do you call those people who used read the future with animal guts?” she asked.
Orin kept staring at the sky but frowned and concentrated as if sorting through data he’d filed under Weird History. His hair was as light against the sky as the birds’ feathers. “I don’t know,” he said.
Sweat or a bug prickled the underside of her thigh, she reached under her skirt and scratched, only to expand the itch to the sweaty crease behind her knee. Right now, around the world, she thought, thousands of romantic scenes like this one were being inconvenienced by heat and the out-of-doors, and this idea reassured her, pointed to a tear in the movie screen through which she could detect lostness and complication, realities she could hold on to.
Orin took a swig of water, swallowed heartily, and straightened up. “We could get married,” he said.
Jesus, she thought. She tried to stab a tomato, but it rolled away. “If I don’t have the baby, would you still marry me?” she asked.
He twisted the pepper mill over his pasta, the cracking noise especially loud against his deliberate, deliberating silence, and then he carefully set the mill a few inches from the candles. Fixing his eyes on the flame, he answered: “Yes. No. I don’t know.”
She dropped her hand, still clutching her fork, into her lap. “You don’t know?”
He observed her calmly, and her anger bubbled into rage. Rage at him for suggesting he’d leave her, at Christy for leaving her alone, at the girl for being stupid, at herself for being stupid, at herself for wanting her own baby even though she didn’t deserve it, at herself for thinking she might deserve it, that she might not be a terrible mother. Carefully and lightly, she ran the pad of her forefinger along the long edge of her placemat, around the right angle, up the side toward the center of the table, and concentrated on every ridge and tickle on the pad of her finger. In the dim flickers she studied her hand, the few glints of clear polish, the shadows between her knuckles, her pointer finger that was operated by a bone so close to the surface she watched it rising and falling as if a piano hammer. She felt pressure to say something but didn’t know what, didn’t want to explain she was touching a placemat because she was afraid she might disappear.
“Miriam?” Orin asked, cautiously.
“I think I want some tea.” She placed her napkin on the table and shifted her legs toward the house.
Stiffly, he lowered his fork. He leveled his gaze on her and seemed to be calculating something of degrees. Then, finally: “I can’t keep treating you with kid gloves. I know you’re sad, but I need you”—he paused, softened—“to get it together. At least for this decision.”
She had always hated the expression kid gloves. She pictured Orin slipping on toffee-colored leather and grimacing, and she felt humiliated that she hadn’t realized he’d been resenting her—or that she had realized but hadn’t cared enough to do anything.
“I was never that together to begin with,” she said.
The left side of his mouth drooped and began to tremble. He began moving the tip of his forefinger in small circles as if dialing a tiny rotary phone. “Do you, or do you not, want to marry me?” he asked, over-enunciating each word. “Do you, or do you not, want the baby?”
Orin, with his little-boy, old-man whiskers. Orin who mustered the courage to propose not once but twice. Orin who brought her food and movies. All the stability and generosity—she should have suspected the loneliness and grievances, acknowledged the journey happening alongside hers. In the night, the trees seemed two-dimensional, spidery paintings on a slate gray screen, while the rows between the trees appeared infinitely long, their dark straightaways meeting no horizon. If she had been a teenager, this night would have been full of symbolism and sex, but now she thought about the sticks and leaf trash, rocks and sprinklers, nonplussed peacocks, and all of it seemed so ordinary she could barely stand it.
She didn’t have to tell him. She could’ve kept pretending it wasn’t a big deal, or decided it was too late, or too shameful. She could’ve resigned herself to the exhaustion and boredom of carrying around a secret. But, she thought, if he wants me—well, here I am. A dare. Fatalism and hope.
“I saw her grab the ice,” Miriam said, “but I kept looking at a skirt in a catalog. A stupid velvet skirt with buttons I didn’t even want.” A beat passed before she turned to Orin. His elbows rested on the table, and his hands stretched around his neck. He was looking at her but seemed to be distracted, processing, lawyering, trying perhaps to calculate the level of her badness or his amount of shame on her behalf. She wanted him to say something, but he just pushed his fingers up the nape of his neck, through his hair, and back down again, and his problem-solving face was replaced by an almost opposite expression, the depleted, sardonic smile of someone surrendering to absurd and immutable awfulness. “Shit,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m the one who’s sorry,” she said.
“I mean I’m sorry it happened. Sorry as in sad.”
“Sad about what I did?”
“No, not like that.” He glanced down and then back to her. “Things could’ve been different,” he said carefully, “but you aren’t a bad person. It happened, and it’s over. Now it just—is.” The disappointed undertone she’d worried about was absent from his voice. He seemed too worn out to dissemble, too close to an argument to be playing nice.
“Things could’ve been different,” she repeated.
“But you’re not a bad person,” he said, more emphatically now. He set his right hand on the table and pushed it toward her, but when she didn’t lift her hand from her lap, he stopped. He waited a few moments, observing her with equal parts tenderness and fatigue, and then stood to clear the table. He stacked the bowls, rolled the napkins inside the placemats, and balanced the forks and pepper mill inside a bowl before walking, carefully, into the house. Shaded by the overhang, the porch was even darker than the rest of the house, but the hallway lamp—Orin just now turning it on—cast a warm glow through the door. She considered following him, but already knew, not for sure and not in detail, the feel and color of the conversation they would have: brave and clear-sighted, sorrowfully pretty with grays and bits of pink. But for now, she needed to stay where she was, to hold onto a fragile moment that was fleetingly becoming quiet and still.
What was that stupid tea-bag quote? Here you are?
Deep in the orchard, the sprinklers continued their steady heartbeats, and she listened to the sprays splattering against the ground, pictured the arcs sweeping away and coming back, and imagined looking at the sprinklers from above, seeing overlapping rings as if a design on a quilt.
Caroline Arden’s fiction has appeared in New Delta Review and the Montreal Review. A recipient of an MFA from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, she has been a finalist in Narrative magazine’s “30 Below” contest and Glimmer Train’s “Family Matters” and “New Writers” contests.