Authors: Amanda Eyre Ward
Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Short Stories (Single Author), #Literary, #General
But Aurora: at naptime, she slept on her stomach with her diaper in the air, her feet crossed underneath her. She was curious, earnest, her teeth tiny pearls. When she ran to Bill and settled herself perfectly against him, her head smelled like sunscreen and caramel.
He made it to Ashworth Island and climbed out of the boat, pulling it to shore. He remembered camping on the island, jamming his legs into his L.L. Bean sleeping bag. Bill missed his child-size camp bag, navy with a black stripe. He'd been asleep inside it the night his aunt went missing.
Bill sat by the water, thinking about Aunt Renee's long-ago disappearance. Uncle Gerry had driven the roads of Belgrade Lakes, calling to check in from every pay phone he came across. When Bill's father, searching with a flashlight, realized the boat was gone, they all assumed—they prayed— she'd gotten lost out on the lake. The police dredged the water, and found Aunt Renee's body. At the funeral, Gerry sat next to the open casket, reaching inside to cover Renee's hand with his own.
Aunt Renee had always insisted on getting up early with Bill and his sisters, letting Bill's parents sleep in. She sat by the side of the lake in her bathrobe and played the violin while they chased each other and gathered twigs. Bill remembered the smell of blueberry pancakes and bacon, Renee's bow resting on the windowsill while she cooked. She was from some Midwestern city—Chicago?—but Gerry had brought her to Maine and she had stayed. Bill's clearest memory of his aunt was when she'd run after their car as they pulled out of the driveway. It was the end of Bill's family's summer visit, and Aunt Renee made Bill's mother stop and roll down the window. “I have one more kiss for the kids,” she'd said. She blew them each a kiss and then stood alone in the road as they drove away, hugging her cardigan around her skinny frame.
The sky was red and gold as Bill paddled back. By the time the cabin came into view, it was nearly dark. In the evening light, he saw Lizzy's faint outline. She was sitting on the deck with her magazine. Bill remembered arriving at the studio to pick Lizzy up for dinner once, seeing her in the midst of practice. Across a mirrored room, bleached with overhead lights, Lizzy had leapt and landed, the muscles in her thighs as solid as rock.
“Bill?” Lizzy shouted. “Is that you?”
He didn't want to reach the shore. The thought of cooking dinner and making stilted conversation before avoiding sex—it was unbearable. But the only words left to say—
I don't love you anymore
—were not in Bill's vocabulary. He stopped paddling and looked into the almond-colored water, understanding that Renee's death had not been a mistake.
“Bill?” called Lizzy.
He stood up in the boat, while she could still see him, and took off his shirt. The evening air was chilly, bringing goose bumps to his skin. He sat down, took off his sneakers and his socks.
“Bill!” She had abandoned her magazine, and was running to the edge of the deck. He rose again, and unclasped his buckle, removing his jeans and underwear. He faced his wife, and then he dove into the lake. The cold was a shock, but he swam down, trying to touch the bottom. For a moment, he was still, and then he floated up, breaking out of the water and taking a deep breath. “Come swimming!” he shouted.
There was no answer.
A last time, he said, “Come swimming!” And then he waited, treading cold water. A cloud moved across the moon. Bill tried to find a star, to make a wish, but the sky was a uniform dark blue. The water stung his eyes, and he closed them. There was a splashing sound—the sound of waves, or maybe the smooth strokes of someone swimming toward him. In the twilight, one loon sang out. The cry was beautiful and lonely.
Raul was talking to me about the
product. The bathroom was full, the parking lot under the ramp to the Bay Bridge was full, every damn cubicle was occupied. I was drinking tea like it was going out of style. In the kitchen area there were two giant coffeemakers, an espresso machine that no one knew how to use, and some chocolate-covered coffee beans.
was all about caffeine, and yet I sipped decaf, as Dr. Zhong had ordered.
Raul was using words like
. We were Editorial. We should have been using words like
but here we were, on the verge of our next round of funding, everything strained to the breaking point (we had switched to Airborne Express when FedEx had cut us off, then to bike messenger, and finally back to FedEx but using our own personal credit cards), and even in Editorial we were talking about Sales.
My period was ten days late, and I was beginning to get excited.
The artists were upstairs. They were mashed in like sardines and wore cat-eye glasses and faux-fur coats, most of them stoned most of the time. I had to tell Jesus that his drawing of Curious George dressed like King Lear was not going to fly.
“But it's Curious George,” he said, sliding his earphones from his ears. “Kids like Curious George.”
“I'm not trying to be difficult,” I said, “but what does a monkey have to do with the theme of the play? Not to mention copyright issues …”
Jesus stared at me levelly. I touched my hair.
“Dude,” said the woman next to Jesus, “what about a giant fucking milk shake, with, like, a talking straw? ‘I'm King Lear, I'm King Lear!’”
Jesus and the woman cracked up. “You got it,” said Jesus. “You fucking said it.” He laughed until tears leaked from the corners of his eyes.
“Hmmm,” I said. “Well, get back to me on that.” I saw a temp in a halter top leave the bathroom door open and I ran for it.
Between my legs, a white expanse of cotton. I closed my eyes and breathed out, then stood and washed my hands with the Softsoap on the counter. There was a
magazine next to the toilet, and a half-empty bottle of red wine. The bathroom window was open—I could hear the yelling. Next door to our office (which used to be a tai chi studio) was a garage. Outside the garage, men yelled at each other in Russian. Periodically, they discarded scraps of metal on the sidewalk—car doors, hubcaps. Once a month or so, a brand-new car for sale appeared outside the shop. The garage was a front for something, but we weren't sure what.
I dried my hands and saw Ben the Tech Guy walking up to our office door leading a puppy on a piece of string. By the time I got downstairs to my cubicle, Ben the Tech Guy was wandering around, telling everyone he had found the puppy at the bus stop and could it live in someone's cube for a while? It could eat pretzels, he insisted.
We had the Monday Editorial Meeting at ten. All of us rose from our cubicles and tramped purposefully up the stairs: Betty, in a flowered dress; Raul and Edward, who had just fallen in love and begun to wear each other's clothing; Linda the yoga queen; and Joni the
expert, in a see-through leopard-print dress from Express.
When we opened the door, strange faces stared at us: adults, real adults, in suits. The meeting room was full of the venture capitalists who wrote our paychecks. I whispered,
supposed to have ten o'clock!” and Brendan grabbed my arm from behind. Brendan was the founder of
. He was also the CEO, CFO, and Editor-in-Chief. He wore corduroy pants and used hair gel.
“Carry on,” Brendan said to the adults, who looked mildly uncomfortable in our meeting room, which we had painted neon green. Brendan closed the door. “Let's meet in the alternate area,” he said.
The alternate area was Sombrero's, the Mexican restaurant across the street. We sat around a Formica table shaped like a jalapeno. Betty sat next to me. She smelled of baby powder. “Are you sick?” she asked me, tucking into her breakfast—three tacos, refried beans, and a large Coke.
“What?” I said. “Do I look sick?”
“You're pale,” said Raul.
“And your hair is flat,” said Edward. They laughed cattily.
Brendan called the meeting to order. “Let's start with the new marketing campaign,” he said. He drew envelopes on his place mat with a ballpoint pen. Then, he drew a row of circles. Lastly, another row of envelopes. “We have a three-pronged attack,” he said.
I said, “This is the Monday Editorial Meeting.”
“Oh,” said Brendan. He sipped his Mr. Pibb. “Does anyone have any Editorial issues?”
There was silence. I tried to decide if I should give voice to my concerns about the King Lear monkey/milk shake concept. Betty cleared her throat and asked, “Any news on funding?” I noticed that her hand was in a fist in her lap.
“Very soon,” said Brendan. “Very soon there should be some news.”
“Payday is Thursday,” said Edward. “Are we going to get paid?” Raul put his hand on Edward's shoulder and squeezed.
Brendan cleared his throat. “Why don't I fill you in on the new marketing campaign?” he said expectantly. We nodded.
He went on and on. Basically, the new marketing campaign was to mail a bunch of stuff. My head was pounding from lack of caffeine. Everyone around me slurped happily, and with verve. Their eyes lit up as the wondrous drug hit their nervous systems. They began making comments about the new strategy, seasoned comments about target customers and data spreads. Linda the yoga queen stretched her arms toward the fluorescent light on the ceiling: Sitting Mountain Pose.
had a chance. We'd gone through two rounds of funding already, and we were waiting for our third. The first six months had been heady: Free Barbecue Wednesdays, Beer Fridays, and pizza everywhere. We had a snack shelf then, filled with Gummi Bears and granola bars. There had been a soda machine with the coin part turned off: just punch a soda and there you go. Sprite? Sure! Diet Coke? Why not? I had gotten up to seven sodas a day.
By the second round, we were more careful. The office had begun to fill up with employees, and we stopped getting kegs for everybody's birthdays. People started going into the bathroom to do drugs. No more X in the office place. We had investors checking up on us now, parking their Benzes in front of the office, “stopping by.” (One investor's license plate said “4TH IPO.”) We got benefits and our first employee over thirty—a platinum blond human resources director who wore denim miniskirts. At the last birthday party, which was mine, Brendan bought a cake from Costco and offered everyone ice water. We knew then that we were in trouble.
Let's be frank.
had started as a good idea: bring Shakespeare to the masses. But it was headed nowhere fast: Shakespeare for idiots. We were actually talking to the “For Idiots” franchise about a possible crossover deal.
I had five hundred thousand stock options. My car was an ‘83 Civic, my house in Bernal Heights had termites, we slept on a mattress on the floor, and we drank whatever beer was on sale. My husband, Leo, taught first grade. Most weekends, we'd load up the car with camping gear and take Moxie, our lab, to Tahoe or the Santa Cruz mountains. As I made noodles on the camp stove and Moxie ran around in circles, Leo read me
short stories or articles from the
. After dinner, we played cards with headlamps on, and I usually—but not always—won.
Leo called these days the Golden Age. “This is the Golden Age,” he'd say, head resting on his tanned arms. He would usually begin this train of thought when I mentioned expensive sushi lunches, someone's brand-new VW Bug with the flower holder, or my desire for a shoe shopping spree. “Everybody's feeling flush, starting to forget that times like these don't go on forever.” He'd turn to me and smile. “Gotta enjoy the hell out of these days,” he would say, “because they won't last.” I knew he was thinking of the dinosaurs, his students’ favorite subject. The dinosaurs hadn't known what was about to hit them. (My husband believed it was an asteroid.)
We had been trying to get pregnant for some time. San Francisco had sun. It had the ocean. It had parks through which we could push a stroller, holding hands or holding lattes. That was enough. We were ready.
Some people in our office had kids. Jesus had a little boy named Kenneth Hendrix. Jesus said his son could use Kenneth for now, Hendrix for when he was ready to get chicks. Ben the Tech Guy had a daughter named Rocket.
Some people were pregnant. There was Trudy the Temp, whose Italian-American husband wouldn't let her eat salt or drive anywhere herself lest she harm Antonio (or Antonia) Junior. And there was Glenda, who hadn't known she was pregnant until she was five months along. In fact, I had been drinking vodka cranberries with her the night before she went to the doctor. She thought she was just getting fat.
Glenda could eat salt. In fact, she and her husband, a roasting technician at Starbucks, thought that smoking pot in moderation could actually help things in the uterine area.
After the first year or so of gleeful fucking had not resulted in a baby, my husband and I started to get serious. We got poked and prodded and tested, but the doctor said there were no problems. It was something magic, I guess, and it wasn't working for us. Each month I got my period, and it had started to make me teary.
had opinions. They had opinions on music (pro—Santana), opinions on food (pro-tofu), opinions on what was cool and what was not. In essence, whatever sucked was something you could be proud of liking, because you were saying that you knew it was lame-o and you thought that was funny. You could like Hello Kitty, and you could like gas station hot dogs, but talking about liking your husband was queer. (Having a husband was sort of queer. It was better to be queer.) Real emotion was out. Roller skates were in. Bowling was in, as well.
Linda the yoga queen had told me about Dr. Zhong. Everyone in her Ashtanga class started going to him when they couldn't get pregnant because they didn't have enough body fat. He was an acupuncturist, and the story was, it worked.
I went to Dr. Zhong. His office was feng-shuied out. It was on Clement, and when you walked in, some gong job sounded. There were plants situated in various corners, and a fish tank by the door, which was to invite the money chi inside. A woman with an unstable look in her eyes took my name and told me to sit on a red pillow in the corner. I was not sure if I was in the love corner or the success corner. Either way.
One of the guys on the
team at work told me that Dr. Zhong had changed his life. He had unblocked his entire stomach with Dr. Zhong. Well, not his stomach, he said, but the stomach energy flow. Energy was called
in acupuncture, he told me earnestly. Whatever: I wanted a baby.
I had always imagined a little boy. Not that I would have minded a daughter, but I relished the thought of a boy who would go with me to the library, who wouldn't mind the stink of the sea lions on Pier 39—or if he did, that was okay, we could skip it—who would kiss me on the cheek and linger, whispering, “Mama.”
And I married the right man. It took me a while to find him, and to understand that kindness was what mattered. A man who made a papier-mâché Abraham Lincoln head to wear the day he taught his students about presidents—that was the man my son would have as a father.
There was Dr. Zhong coming toward me, wearing a white coat like a normal doctor. His face was a big pie, and he didn't seem jerky, or in a hurry, like my HMO guy who had a hundred patients a day. He was almost bald, and there was something on his cheek: a birthmark in the shape of a heart. He smiled, thin but wide.
“I'm Mimi,” I said. With difficulty, I stood up from the pillow.
“Come with me,” said Dr. Zhong.
I did. He led me into a room with a bed inside it. Another woman was there too, in a white coat like Dr. Zhong's. She smiled and Dr. Zhong said, “Lin does not speak English.” I nodded. “Why not lie down?” said Dr. Zhong. Why not indeed? The bed was cool underneath my thighs. “Why not tell me why you are here?” said Dr. Zhong, and I began.
“I want to have a baby,” I said. “My husband and I have tried everything. I love him, and the doctors say there isn't any reason why.” The woman nodded, and took my wrist. Dr. Zhong took my other wrist. I sat between them for a moment, breathing slowly in and out. The woman spoke in Chinese and Dr. Zhong responded. Finally, he said, “It is like a river, with too much water between the banks.”
While I considered that, the woman left. “Lie back down,” said Dr. Zhong. “Just relax. We will warm your womb.”
I really do think he said that. I would not make this up. He stuck needles in various parts of me and then the woman came back with a heat lamp and held it in front of my belly button. They took some big rubber cups and suctioned them on and off of me. And then it was done. “Take this,” said Dr. Zhong, handing me a piece of paper covered in Chinese characters.
I took the pills and sipped the tea. The tea tasted like what would result if you boiled lemongrass and Windex. Fucking A. I drank the stuff. When I told my husband all about it, he laughed and then looked a bit miserable. He patted the spot next to him on the mattress, and I went and lay down. He ran his fingers through my hair. “Hey,” he said. There was nothing else to say. He wanted a little one as much as I did.
I felt a bit different after Dr. Zhong. I slept more soundly than ever before. It was as if my life had stopped while I was asleep—none of those half-remembered turnings, no dog jumping on the bed and mashing my feet. It was as if I had been alone in bed and taken NyQuil. NyQuil rocked. It had been like that. And then I woke up.
I should have gotten my period on Thursday. Thursday came and went, and I ran into the bathroom whenever it was free, which was not often. My heart raced as I copyedited the synopsis of
. (Each play was synopsized into short, “reader-friendly” segments. For example, here is what I was handed on Thursday:
Othello was a totally rad dude and he told crazy stories. He was black;, which is totally cool; but which was not cool in Shakespeareses time. Desdemona was a young hottie, like Christina Aguilera, but royalty. She fell in love with Othello. They were like Iman and David Bowie; but opposite
. Unbearably, it was not my job to rewrite the “story pods,” as they were called. I just added apostrophes, deleted semicolons, gritted my teeth, and moved on.)