The house smells like reheated leftovers and a hint of the peppermint candle I lit in the living room. I turn on the ceiling fan and can still hear the murmur of Nathan reading stories to Lena on the other side of the wall. When I put Jarrod down, it’s a lukewarm bath, three stories, two songs, switch on the sound machine, and he’s asleep before you even leave the room. Not so for Lena, whose bedtime in Nathan’s care can stretch one, sometimes two hours, leaving me to a sink slopping with bubbles and bits of food. I pad through the house, not realizing I’m holding my breath, dousing the plates and cups one at a time, so that barely any sound makes its way a few yards down the hallway. Sliding into bed with a novel, I make lists in my mind or read the same page over and over until my eyes seal shut.
Thursday is our day to provide snacks for preschool, and we’re almost out of milk, Jarrod’s pants too short, Lena’s also. When’s the last time Nathan called his mom? I need to take a pair of pruning shears to those hedges out front. We’ve gone unkempt in a shameful way, and I can barely stand to look. I smooth the comforter over my stomach, wondering if it is too soon to ask how Nathan’s job hunt is coming along.
Things I want to remember: Lena playing in the overgrown grass by the fence, her hands dancing up and down like a conductor; sitting together on the porch, snapping the ends off green beans for dinner; Jarrod pointing to his bear, saying, “Nose,” and planting a kiss; those few moments at dinner when everything is quiet and squares of golden light map our kitchen wall.
“Must be riveting,” Nathan says, meaning the book, and shuffles a toy train to the side with his foot on his way to brush his teeth.
He turns the faucet on, so I wait until he climbs into bed before asking, “How are the job applications going?”
“Great. Wonderful,” he says. “Forty-two and counting.”
“There’s still time.”
“Five more weeks of unemployment,” he says, voice flat and worn. “And, if we’re careful, three months of emergency savings after that.”
Not that I couldn’t have read the situation by the length of his stubble, the number of days he hasn’t bothered to change into real clothes, or that slow, methodical drone of the afternoon cable news. The youngest VP in the history of Provincial Trust now flattens diet soda cans on the back step for cash redemption.
“It was responsible of you to build that savings up after the first merger,” I said, sliding my hand under the covers to take hold of his.
“And you wanted to go to Florida,” he says.
“I’m not a forward thinker,” I say, the blades of the fan casting shadows on the ceiling. I think of how Lena once called it “octoplus.” Not her first word, but probably her sixth or seventh. Octoplus. I had waited four years for Edna Timms to finally release her death grip on that school nurse position, and then Jarrod came along and I let it go like it was nothing.
Nathan swivels his head on the pillow, says, “I’ll let you know if anything comes up, okay?” and reaches back to switch off the lamp.
I slide over and place my ear onto his chest, hear life rushing from one chamber to the next. The strength and the sound of it startles me. How can I not hear it all the time? Across the room, across the house, even? How do I forget?
His breathing slows. I run my hand down his chest, whisper, “Are you still awake?”
There is no answer.
I fish through the dirty laundry basket for a towel, foamy bubbles clinging to my thighs. I let my eyes go a little unfocused when I take stock. It’s been six months since I’ve weaned our son. My body has returned to me worn from the lending, but more fully alive.
Lotioned and lying in bed again, I pray Lena falls asleep quickly. There was a time I’d decline sex, and other seasons when the novelty wore thin, and we’d pause halfway through, trying to dream up a more exciting configuration of limbs. I would slap that twenty-something if I could, with her champagne evenings and late morning lie-ins and brunch. I turn onto my stomach and rifle through the bedside drawer, checking for condoms, pull out used tissues, a half-empty bottle of aspirin, and a crumbled church bulletin from last month with a grocery list written down the margin.
Once, when we’d been dating only a few months, Nathan’s mother had placed a folded-over church bulletin in front of him, my name circled in pencil, about halfway down on the prayer list.
Naturally, I was furious when he told me. “What kind of person puts somebody on a prayer list without even asking?”
At that time, still so new to each other, Nathan found it charming when I got “mad red,” as he called it. He always drove with his left hand, his right arm draped over my shoulder, and me sidled up next to him in his pickup.
I threw his arm off. “Don’t laugh! It’s no wonder she asked you about it.”
“Oh, come on. What’s the harm in a few extra prayers?”
“Don’t you know it’s code between church ladies? ‘Keep your boys safe and pray for this little hussy.’ ”
Nathan had laughed so hard that I’d scooted across the pickup’s vinyl bench seat and pressed my forehead against the cool glass. I remember I’d wanted to say, “Take me home,” but home was where my conscience rattled behind me like empty tin cans.
Nathan had gone quiet, thinking through the implications of what I’d said, probably, and worrying whether he’d been a bit tarnished in his mother’s eyes. But I knew even then he wouldn’t give up on me that easily, though that had happened before, with other guys. At seventeen, I often wondered what my life would be like if my physicality didn’t seem to fire up a hunger in some people and an anger in others. “All those boys want is to own you,” my mother warned. “Tell them you just want to be friends.” And that preacher with several Sundays worth of material about the dangers of lust, but nothing he said, even about hell itself, seemed more frightening to me than my own loneliness.
I’m half-asleep by the time Nathan escapes Lena’s room. “Are you going to put my name on the prayer list?” he asks, nodding at the bulletin still in my hand.
“You’re not a sad enough story just yet,” I say, teasing, but he closes the bathroom door and doesn’t reappear for a long time. I click my light off, and when he finally comes to bed, I’m making lists in my head again and praying away all my body craves from him.
The dark has already settled around me when Nathan entered, turning the handle before closing the door slowly so as not to wake me. The swish of his sweatshirt as he takes it off, his shorts against his legs as they fall to the floor, sounds so familiar I can imagine his movements even in the dark. He pulls down the covers and rests on his back. There’s a foot or two between us in this new queen-size bed, but I resist the urge to scoot over, rest my ear on his pillow, my arm across his chest. Neither of us moves, as if I’ve trained out of him the impulse to covet my affection. Sleep has become my religion, and I am devout, even with my eyes wide open. Days pass, months, and I feel sick about it. I write consolations in my journal: You were awake. You did see the child, tiny monarch caterpillars inching up her arm, the way she plucked them from the butterfly bush her father planted for her. You were there when the boy drank down all the richness of your love.
I slide closer, a posture we’ve shared since we were only—and weren’t we still—children? Nathan’s arm wraps around me, though he is already deep in slumber.
My thoughts flash again, to the river, the trestle, how he’d park his pickup near the loading ramp, and we’d ignore those No Trespassing signs and walk out over the Wabash, the summer leaves full enough to hide the ground below us. Nathan would always leave one tie between us, walking behind, making it look easy. But me? By the twentieth tie, that same pitching sensation, as if I might throw myself off the side just to see if I’d survive.
When the ground below us turned to river, Nathan would reach for me, his palms dry and warm, mine slimy and cold with the fear that if he plummeted, he’d take me with him. The Wabash was maybe two-hundred yards wide, though we’d never gone more than halfway across, nothing on the other side but woods we didn’t know.
“If we have kids someday, I hope the first is a boy,” I’d said once.
“You do?” he said, gazing straight down as he walked.
“A big brother would fix everything,” I said, far enough out now that I wondered if we’d be noticed by cars crossing the bridge a quarter-mile downriver, and whether they’d call the police.
“Wanna go back?” he asked, and I said, “Let’s lie down a while,” and lowered myself into sitting position.
“Last time we did that, you had to crawl back across,” he said. “Remember?” But I was already leaning back, the rough surface of the wood digging into my spine. The sky stretched over me, and I could almost feel the surge of the current as it headed down to join the Ohio, the Mississippi, and eventually the ocean.
Nathan sat one tie over, drew his knees to his chest, and crossed his arms over them. “This has nothing on the rivers we saw out West,” he said, his lead into telling me about Washington again, or California, where he’d taken a road trip with his parents two summers before. “Barges stacked with semis, just the box part, you know?”
I’d heard it a dozen times by then, and inhaled until the muscles in my chest burned. A turkey vulture circled, and I said, “Tell me about those trees again.”
“Yeah, it’d take ten, twelve people linking arms to circle the trunks.” Then he smiled in that way I knew he’d say something about his dad next, which he did, and it seemed to me then that I could read Nathan like a book, and that someday he’d take me far from that place.
My shoulder begins to ache from where it’s lodged under his pillow, and when I shift onto my other side, Nathan mirrors me, the soles of our feet resting against one another under the flannel sheet, and I breathe into the steadiness of his back against mine.
Tonight, instead of songs, I teach Jarrod the bedtime prayer we use with Lena. “Now I lay me down to sleep,” I whisper, and he blinks up at me in the darkness.
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep,” I continue, pausing to kiss the bridge of his nose. Lord, I think, let him be a gentle boy. I hear Lena protesting her toothbrush several rooms away. Jarrod falls asleep in my arms but wakes up furious when I lower him into his crib. In our room, guilt hovers over me until Nathan enters. When he’s settled into the covers, I tell him, “Lena’s been torturing one of the kittens.”
“Her arm is all scratched up. She told me on our walk today that she’d been training the kitten in case of a hawk attack.”
“What a riot,” he says. “Where does she get this stuff?”
“I told her to promise me she’d be kind to them from now on, and she just skipped ahead on the sidewalk.”
“Do you think it’s from preschool?”
“How would she get the idea at preschool? It’s terrible! I need to find some books or something.”
“Maybe the kitten was playing too rough with her. Torturing seems like an awfully strong word,” he said. “Doesn’t it?”
“Oh, no, I saw it. Or I think I did,” I say, smoothing my hair back from my forehead. “Out the kitchen window, her arms swooping up and down into the grass. That must have been what she was doing.”
“Training it,” he says again, as if to himself. “I’ll talk to her in the morning.” He pulls me tight against him, traces a finger along my collarbone. “But really, it’s not that strange a thing for kids to do.”
I shake him off, unable to let it go, this cruelty developing in her like a seed breaking through the surface. Just like someday, years from now, I’ll notice with a shock two small buds beneath her shirt and wish I hadn’t burdened her with such responsibility. I twist in the sheets, fighting off the ghosts of careless boys, and the torture of girlhood again and again until eventually, I sleep. And dream of leading Lena across the trestle, as though into some grand adventure. And my foot missing the next tie, where I step down into pure, deep cool air and reach for her as we fall, mother and daughter screaming for each other before the river opens, and closes over us.
I insist on putting her to bed myself this time, unable to tolerate even one more missed connection with Nathan, and so when I finally enter our bedroom, the lights are off. I brush my teeth in the soft glow of the street light, and work down my list: The way Lena held her stuffed cat against her face as I read to her, the suddenness of her descent into sleep, the way her grip tightened when I tried to roll out of her bed. How Jarrod says, “Thank you welcome,” how they’d splashed half the bathwater onto the floor, and how Nathan and I just stood there, the sound of their laughter filling up some hollow place inside us.
I shimmy over to him, wrapping my leg over his and tucking my feet to warm them. I feel the sharp scrape of his whiskers against my lips before he kisses me.
“I hate when you do that,” he says.
When he props himself up, I tug at his waistband half-heartedly, more a request than an effort. My breasts find new life in Nathan’s hands, his mouth. I wrap my legs around his again, draw a line from his jaw to his ear, and have faith that my readiness says everything I need it to about today, and tomorrow, and twenty years from now.
Later, my back against his chest, his hand between my legs, I know what it is to fall from a great height. To die and rise. To believe, and be redeemed.