Yesterday was the perfect day to tell him. The air was choked with ash, hazy with heat lines; her tender nasal membranes were swollen and oozing in discomfort. She had sat in her kitchen, right knee tucked under her in the chair that her father had made for her in high school, feeling sick. For six hours she watched blue jays fight over acorns in the ancient oak outside her window, watched the clouds morph through a Rorschach of faces: first anguish, then anger, and finally disgust. She chewed the skin of her inner cheek to a pulp. She felt she couldn’t move from the spot or else, like in her one recurring nightmare, she would shrivel into a wooden baby doll, a leaf, and finally, an imperceptible grain of sand.
Today it is raining. Fat, heavy drops that seem like Hollywood special effects as they spray the window, obscuring the view of all but the most imperceptible blur of dark green and brown. Now that there is the fresh ozone tingle of water in the air, which feels a little bit like promise, the world around her no longer matches the one inside her.
Somehow, she dials his number. He’s been waiting for her call.
“I miss you,” he says. “I really miss you.”
“I’m glad,” she says. And she is glad. Glad that for the 20 minutes it will take him to drive to her house, he will be thinking pleasantly about her. Will perhaps allow himself to drift into reverie of one of their last weekends away, to the coast, where he tried to get her to eat oysters, and she gagged and he dared her to get rip-roaring drunk. That’s how he said it, “rip-roaring,” which made her picture herself dancing on tables in nothing but her underwear and wrenching darts out of the hands of men playing in the pub downstairs. She only got tipsy, though that was enough to wash the ocean taste of oysters out of her mouth and make her feel drowsily amorous. They were awakened by another couple above them having loud, shameless sex.
Her tailbone throbs from all the sitting she has done in the past day, trying to decide what to do, to say. She doesn’t feel solid at all, but more like a loose collection of atomic particles, certain she can feel each electron in her body, pinging and buzzing through space, stopping long enough to create the shape, the thought of her, and then the shape of it, this little simulacrum of them.
In her waiting, she paces her house, roaming it like one of the neighbor’s cats who occasionally sneaks in and investigates the niches and spaces of her private things. She walks by furniture that her father made on his old lathe, silk hangings that her grandmother wove, and books that her mother wrote. Her house is made of her family, all of them gone now, each of them too early.
On a wooden shelf over the fireplace is a picture of her great-grandmother Belle, a dark-eyed woman who felt trapped and kept down her whole life according to neatly penned journals found hidden in her things by one of her seven daughters. “I stifle in the walls of my husband’s home, beneath the begging hands of my babes,” she wrote. “I keen for nothing but wide open meadows, fresh air, and a moment without demands.”
As his car is pulling up the long gravel road to her house, it occurs to her that even though she is about to confess to the one thing their relationship can’t sustain — he’ll never leave his wife, it was decided from the beginning — it’s a privilege her great-grandmother never had. Belle, she imagines, who died of pneumonia before the age of 65, would have been glad to abandon what Helena is choosing in favor of pleasure without the burden of wifely duties.
She admires his long-legged, loping gait as he eases up the walkway, the crooked smile, the messy mop of dark curls.
“I’m sorry,” she says, as he slips in through the sliding glass door, doused by the rain, not seeming to mind.
“Why are you sorry?” he asks.
She will tell him, in just a minute, but first, with his body a familiar comfort against her, his smell knocking her senses into bliss, she feels choked and wishes something would let up — her wanting, or just the rain.