Stones, Buoys

Amalia Gladhart                   [first published in STONE CANOE 4]

The thought of another child is a stone I carry in my hand. It fills my palm as I manipulate details of my daily life, a couple of fingers always occupied holding it in place. It’s not sharp. Doesn’t hurt to grasp it. More like a river stone, smooth and rounded and cool. But always present. Unyielding. Still a stone, still rigid, still heavy, still rock.

It’s the thought that somehow underlies all other thoughts, no matter how seemingly unrelated. Like talking with a marble in your mouth, holding it to one side with your tongue, tucked in the gum. I know I must not plan, can never be sure a certain thing will happen at a given time, yet when people mention next year, next fall, next winter, this other child is always in the back of my mind. I think, how pregnant might I be by such a date? How far along?

It was the same with Benjamin and Amy. Even once I began to have more good days, good parts of days, it seemed I was always thinking about them. An automatic undercurrent, my new default setting: this is what my brain now does on automatic pilot. Consciously, I’d be chatting with a friend, or ordering bulbs to plant in the fall, or vacuuming cat hair off the couch, but really I’d be thinking about my babies and how they died, how the doctors tried to stop the contractions and they were born anyway, way too soon. Memories can be like stones, too, clattering against each other like gravel pulled by waves. They can be just as random, thrown up by the tide with no other connection than proximity.

So my cheeks were full of these stones, my hands, my pockets, always overwhelmed and awkward and unable to move quickly. It doesn’t have to be a large thing, visible, ugly. Try carrying around a stone for a week. Never set it down. Pass it from side to side as you wash your hands. If you need to carry something in the hand that holds the stone, hold both. Placing it between your chin and neck is cheating, if ingenious. But keep it in your hand. Sleep that way. Type, drive—whatever it is you do.

On a Wednesday, I picked up a tin of black currant tea. Tea in one hand, stone in the other. It was another of those unexpected memories, something I’d forgotten that I’d forgotten. I want to say it jumped off the shelf, but in fact I paused, had to think too carefully. Decisions, small ones, were still an undertaking. Some days I didn’t dress, because I didn’t know what to wear.

For some reason my parents found tea more acceptable for a child than coffee, less likely to stunt my growth, so by high school it was a regular routine, always English breakfast, purchased in tins I filled with pencils and beads and then stacked uselessly in the basement when they began to overflow. I don’t entirely like the taste. It’s just what I drink, sometimes two or three pots a day. I have a whole collection of mugs people have given me, with clever sayings about tea, or cats, or both, because somehow my relatives have gotten the idea that tea is a hobby, not a beverage.

I tried black currant tea for the first time the spring after college graduation, when I visited Anna in France. She was working as a high school language aide, north of Paris, in a mid-sized city with blocks of immaculate, tiny apartments. Before she left, she’d urged me to come visit. She later admitted being a little apprehensive when I announced my intention of coming for three weeks. That was the maximum time allowed on the cheapest fare, and anything less seemed a waste of money, to fly all the way to France and only stay ten days.

Once I was there, the long visit didn’t seem to be a problem. I didn’t mind being on my own, taking a few day trips alone on the train, pointing at menus as if I knew what I was ordering. Or I stayed home, drinking tea and eating cookies while I watched the people at the bus stop under Anna’s bedroom window. I spread crumbs in a line on the windowsill, but no birds came. The cupboards of Anna’s sparsely furnished flat—provided by the city as part of her pay—held bowls instead of cups, deep blue ceramic soup bowls, and I drank pots of the black currant tea, the only kind Anna had, black or with the boxed milk I never got used to. Sometimes the tea showed an odd greasy sheen over the top, from the tap water or the milk, I wasn’t sure. I’d drink tea and listen to music in the morning while Anna was busy at the school, and in the afternoon we’d wander the neighborhood.

Anna moonlighted in an adult training program, mostly housewives needing jobs and a little English. One of the women had invited Anna to her home, and I was included once she learned I was visiting.The afternoon we spent with them has remained my standard of hospitality, the small living room entirely taken over by a long table, the several courses (chopped vegetables in a mayonnaise dressing is the only one that I remember), the eagerness of the entire family to participate in welcoming guests. Most of all the openness to me, whom they didn’t even know, who didn’t even speak French, though I tried a word here and there to great effect. And for some reason table gifts, small boxed bottles of perfume at my place and at Anna’s, an unusual fragrance I liked but afterward wore seldom. I kept the bottle—even after the sunlight across my dresser changed the smell, I couldn’t bear to throw it out. It’s still there, among the loose earrings, small change, potting soil never properly cleaned up after one of the cats knocked over an African violet.

One sniff of the black currant tea and I was back in that city apartment. It overlooked a narrow park, just a couple of benches, some white gravel, a chestnut tree. Anna’s clutter barely dented the curious emptiness of the rooms: mattress on the floor because the bed frame was squeaky, a tiny fridge, a bulky armoire, dark hallways by the elevator, where all the lights were on automatic timers. Anna wondered if she might not stay in France, though she didn’t really have a job, no long-term visa, just the implied promise of a more permanent position in the adult ed program. I wondered what it would be like, living so far from home. Using your own language only as a teaching tool, subject matter like biology or algebra. And I thought of future meals with Anna’s student. I wish I could remember her name. We’ll never meet again, but it seems wrong somehow to remember so fondly a woman whose face I barely recall. All losses seem greater now. Inevitable, in a way they didn’t before, but more painful. Insulting.

Anna didn’t stay. She went back home, lived with her parents for a year while completing an accelerated master’s program—in what, I no longer remember. Maybe social work. Maybe special ed. We more or less lost touch after a while. Too many intervening moves. We send Christmas cards, but those rarely include real letters, only the quick updates that fit between the printed greeting and the difficult, shiny paper on the back. I never even told her I was pregnant, which made it easier, one less person to tell when I no longer was.

The one benefit of no longer being pregnant was no longer having to be so careful of my body. Seatbelt below the belly, sleep on your left side, no soft cheeses, no rare meat. No caffeine, no alcohol, no ocean waves. The summer was a strange one at the coast, unexpected currents bringing water warmer than it had been in a generation. You could actually swim without a wetsuit. Ben and I didn’t know that when we left the house, both of us a bit slow on the uptake, blinkered, unable to take in too many variables at once. But one of the things available to do—shattered and confused as we were, loaded down with invisible pebbles and wanting to keep each other company—was to go to the coast, pack a picnic, make bed and breakfast reservations. All the things normal people do, as well as the people just trying to get on with their lives, which might be everyone, for all I know.

The drive across the state park was glorious, so densely treed you almost needed headlights, sun glinting here and there through the maples. Maples and pines, some kind of conifer—I still haven’t learned their names. One, twelve or fourteen inches around, grew from the center of a gigantic stump like a single candle in the middle of a cake. Earlier, hiking, we’d seen a row of trees growing over a tree fallen uphill, straddling the slowly dissolving bark of the nurse log. The bare roots looked like the muscled thighs of a gymnast, clutching the trunk as though it were a horse.

The parking lot began much sooner than we’d expected, suddenly a break in the trees and the road widened, with yellow faded lines forking the heaved, uneven asphalt like the left half of a fish’s ribs. Much of the support must have fallen clean away; the road was that way also, long waves of sunken grade. A few cars, only, out near the actual trail to the beach, parked any which way against the lines in an attempt to claim the shade.

We reached the shore shortly before noon. The tide was at that indeterminate level that leads to discussions—is it coming in, or going out? We walked as far as the short beach allowed without shoes and with my fear of rising tides and dashed bodies and the general dread imparted by one of those horrible stories about a family trapped in a sea cave that I’d read when I was twelve. And then we waded back, swinging our arms, sandals in hand, thinking, it is just too warm, the sun too bright, not to swim.

We changed in the car. Park rest rooms never seem to have anywhere to set down the clothes you want to keep dry and anyway, this was just an outhouse. Changing was easy enough, when we were still dry and no one was around. Later we were damp and wanted to dry off and the park was becoming more crowded.

But first we swam, in a way I think I have never done at the beach in Oregon, splashing in the waves for forty-five minutes, an hour, even, still only slightly cold at the end, winded but exhilarated. This was actual swimming, and welcome, and oh, please don’t make me get out yet. Clouds threatened periodically and we thought if the sun disappeared too thoroughly, we’d have to leave. Perhaps we’d delayed our swim too long. But we kept the sun and the water in our hair and salt in our eyes, able to smile at each other like a couple of kids bounding through the surf, sand in our teeth, the murk of opening your eyes face down and the stellar glitter of sun on spray, and the few kids a little behind us looking on with approval, or perhaps for approval, as if our presence suggested they weren’t yet too far from shore. We swam, boisterous and open and grateful just to be there, to have this single chance at warm Pacific water so far north, to stand legs braced into a breaking wave and feel it full on the chest, that rise and thunder, the smacked push, the water in your face. Or to dive across the top, sinking blissfully into the quiet on the other side, but a loud bliss, one made of hoops and petticoats and the rocketing breath of afternoon. I had not thought to be so happy again.

And still, all this with the stone in my hand, as if I had found it on the beach after changing into my suit. People put rocks in their pockets hoping to drown, but I swam with stones in my hands and was buoyed, a furl of salt foam.

After our swim, our hasty change of clothes behind towels in the parking lot, we gave ourselves an afternoon of touristing in Maple Beach, a late, extravagant lunch with a full bottle of wine and warm seafood salad in a restaurant that seemed to have been built in a child’s converted playhouse. After all that wine we thought we’d better walk it off before getting back in the car, so we dawdled up and down the main street, dozed for a bit on a bench in the sun. Besides the hand-painted silk scarves and leather jackets, the thousand objects of polished wood and shells that line any tourist town’s displays, there always seem to be bookstores, to lure the less spendthrift shoppers, or at least entertain them while their companions eye the mohair shawls and burnished doorstops. We trailed through half a dozen, new and used. I splurged on a couple of mysteries (new) which I promised myself I’d share with friends, to justify the cost. By that time we were sober but hungry and filled up on ice cream. We had to dodge and weave a bit to avoid the couples with babies, but it was a good day. The sun lingered, and we wandered full-bellied and contented back to our bed and breakfast. Still with our hands full, of course. Always that.

Once my parents went their separate ways, it was as though they’d never been connected. There was only me to show for it, their occasional simultaneous presence at some milestone in my life. They scarcely mention one another, and it seems perfectly natural, a reflexive return to their prior state. Now I can reconstruct for my parents a life as difficult as anyone’s, a marriage as complex and painful and filled with inadvertent secrets: the years of trying to have a child, the cradle my grandfather built long before it was needed and which, once I was born, my mother couldn’t bear to use. There must have been more between my parents at the beginning, a place the waiting, the disappointment, emptied out. They ran out of things to say to each other, kept picking up stones on the beach. Soon there was nothing to do but throw them, build little towers, ramparts. For all I know, that’s why my father bounced from job to job. But he must have thought my mother beautiful once, must have held her hand through the various tests. My mother, I know, was used to being protected, and my father couldn’t save her. Perhaps what I thought dull was just unspeakable.

I remember catching mackerel in Maine with my father. They were so beautiful straight out of the water, green, pebbly, lustrous. Later, in a bucket waiting to be cleaned, they paled; even the immediate photograph doesn’t capture that live action marvel of a fish.We caught them on lines rigged like trees, with spaced hooks to snag several fish at once as we ferried back and forth where the radio said the schools should cluster that afternoon, line trailing over the edge of the yellow boat Dad’s friend had built from a kit. Fiberglass and fast, it was named Small Potatoes. I wore a pink shirt, one my mother had made, loose and floral. When Dad asked about it, was it new, I froze, unsure if he would want to admire any of her work. That must have been the summer after they divorced.

“Your mother’s always been amazing with a needle,” he said, something he’d said many times before, and I remembered Hal, the one kid in the fifth grade whose mother was dead, not just remarried. The gangly pale kid the girls all thought was icky. Years later, in high school, Hal complained about the way everyone zeroed in on his supposed great sense of humor, finding one nice thing to repeat, over and over. What a geek, but what a sense of humor.

Hal’s other claim to fame was Halloween pumpkins. He lived kitty corner from the school (that in itself was weird) so we all got to admire the pumpkins on the front porch. They didn’t carve them, not the way we did, jagged holes all the way through to reveal the candle flame inside. They used chisels to carve out narrow, scalloped grooves, elaborate Polynesian masks they painted red and black and gold. They had the biggest ones in town, too, his dad must have had some kind of a deal with a farmer, or maybe they grew them in the yard. Hal lived with his father and grandmother, neither of whom I ever met, or saw.

Those pumpkins likely weren’t as lovely out of water, perched on a different porch. Maybe it already was a different porch—it would have to be, different from when his mother lived there with them. Only two boys in my class lived with their fathers—no girls—and the other lived around the block from us on a dead-end street with a father who looked like a biker. I dated Phil for a while in tenth grade, before either of us could drive, when we were still limited to double dating with older friends. His father, it turned out, was at least as strict as mine, but our relationship foundered not on parental prohibitions but on the lack of anything to say, a lack that appeared, oddly enough, the day I returned from the funeral of one of my mother’s friends.

Meena worked with my mother. She and her husband used to come over for dinner, and we’d been to their house. I felt like I was being auditioned for surrogate child. Meena and her husband couldn’t have children of their own. Mom used to say they could share me.

I remember finding Phil on the lawn at lunch, after I’d been out of school for the morning service. He reached up a hand to pull me down beside him, and I sat there with my legs straight out in front of me in my dark blue skirt, and he asked if I was okay. Afterward, I realized I had nothing more to say to him. He broke up with me the next day, again at lunch, twenty-five quick minutes in which we resolved all the crucial business of our lives before rushing back to class.

Meena was thin even before the cancer, though I barely saw her after she was ill. It didn’t take long, really, six months, perhaps a bit longer. The funeral was not at all what I expected, guitar music and a flute, songs and prayers I couldn’t follow because I’d never learned. Afterward we stood on the sidewalk with Meena’s husband, and I said something stupid about the nice service and then wanted to sink into the ground. I only saw him once again, several years later, when I was working at a bookstore the summer after my first year in college. He came in with his new wife and newer baby, buying children’s books, so it must have been Meena who couldn’t have kids. Mom used to say, if people remarried quickly, it was because they had enjoyed being married. I don’t think he recognized me. He didn’t say anything, and I certainly didn’t volunteer.

This is the way my memory works—one death is much like another, some days. Bits and pieces surface and anything that isn’t lost appears with the same degree of clarity, the same proportions. So that it makes sense to recall the black currant tea and Meena’s funeral and Hal’s painted pumpkins, as if they all occurred on the same afternoon, though it was only the same girl watching.

The day after Ben and I returned from the coast, the papergirl came to collect. I periodically cancel the paper in disgust, but we’d recently started taking it again. I needed a connection to the outside world, one that would arrive on my doorstep without any effort on my part. If not something to look forward to, at least something to do. One is urged to keep busy, but that’s not as easy as it sounds. So, after the babies died, I decided to give the paper another chance. It filled an hour or so every morning, and sometimes I learned something interesting. Often it was full of disappearances—women who went to work one day and didn’t come back, nothing found but a leather jacket or a charge slip or maybe their pickup with the keys still in the ignition, or maybe not even that. Vanished women and abused children, and the poisoning of the air and water, and the decadence of our legislative system. Already I was wondering why I had resubscribed, though I felt more or less at home, surrounded by disaster. It had the unsettling effect of making me count my blessings, something I didn’t care to do. It seemed so cold- blooded, as though I were glad that Amy and Benjamin were dead. It’s such a murderous reflex, the way we try to encourage, in ourselves and in each other, this hunt for something good about the grimmest situations.

Our papergirl was older than she used to be. I liked that. Nearly a year must have passed, possibly longer, since I’d last taken myself off her route. She’d been shy before, hardly able to spell her name for me—an unusual one that I could never remember. I supposed now I would have to continue delivery until I knew it by heart, once and for all.

This time she smiled. Bruno, our oldest, biggest cat, headed over to sniff at her open-toed sandals, and she laughed and said she had cats, too, that must be what he smelled. She never used to laugh before. I’d try to make a little conversation while I wrote out the check, since I never managed to predict when she would come and so have cash on hand, and she’d just shift uneasily from foot to foot, looking furtively around the room.

I rarely saw her after 6:30 in the morning, by which time the paper was supposed to have arrived on my step. Once or twice I saw her walking home from school. Until collection night, however, I hadn’t realized she’d gotten so old. I liked, for once, the evidence of time passing. Some people’s children grew up, stood straighter, learned to pass the time with the idiot lady who obviously thought her cat was just the latest word on cute. She had narrow dark hands that flipped at her receipt book as I made out a second check, having typically spoiled the first. I almost asked her why newspapers hand out those silly scraps of index card in exchange for perfectly good money. But she was smiling at my cat, and at me, so I thought it better not to press my luck. I didn’t want to scare her away, afraid she’d glance over my shoulder at the scattered blocks and lob an innocent, insanely painful question that I would have to scrape off the floor like raw meat.

When we bought the place, I read every damn word of the closing papers at the title company, though all it amounted to, in twenty-three pages of small print legalese, was make your payments or we take the house. I didn’t know enough to be daunted by the enormity of it, the size of the debt, the years and years before we’d own even the front stoop. I just knew it was time for us to buy. There’s a timetable, they print it in high school textbooks, between the lines in almost invisible ink, like those subliminal pictures that supposedly make you buy pop at the movies. There are points by which you should earn an advanced degree, if you feel you have to have one, should marry, have children, purchase a home. To every thing there is a season, or however that song goes.

But I have not yet put away childish things. I lie steeped in them. My skin has the crumpled texture of a soaked mint leaf, the greenish pallor; with the curtains closed midafternoon I play on the floor with blocks, build- balance-destroy, build-balance-destroy. I relish the clatter, the irregularities of sanding, the smooth, cool wood against my cheek. Soon I’ll have them in my mouth, a toddler chewing on her toes.

“You might like to have them,” my mother said on the phone. I’d scarcely told her I was pregnant when the box of toys arrived, things I’d played with that she’d kept track of for years, proof of devotion. Look how I’ve preserved your memories for you. Some were battered, hardly worth the postage, the trouble of packing and sending, but the blocks were welcome and days when no one saw me, when Ben was out, I’d play with them for hours.

This sounds like a woman going crazy, but I’m fully dressed in this picture. No torn hospital smock. My hair’s only lightly mussed, and that happens to anyone. I just needed something to do. Something unintentional. To reconstruct a memory other than those Mom had boxed and sent. I was trying to stop time, which is why the papergirl surprised me so.

Imagine this: a girl out playing with the motion detector lights, trying to get past the sensor without setting them off. The father thought his daughter must be training for burglary. No, his wife insisted. It’s like meditation, or yoga. She’s just trying to move really, really slow. Imperceptibly so. He saw her in the drive across the street—the occupants were in Arizona for the winter—like a mime in silhouette. She looked to be dressed all in black like a real thief, but when she came inside she had on jeans and a green sweatshirt. Evidently she’d been at it for a week. Was getting good, able to still her body almost completely yet move inexorably across the yard.

I remember this, too. I don’t know if it’s something I read or saw on TV or dreamt or if it even matters, but I remember that girl in her sweatshirt and jeans, her stringy hair, the wad of gum against her teeth that she didn’t chew—no movement, remember—just sucked at, lips pursed, sugar fading. She’s tall, she looks just like her father and she’s this close to leaving home for good.

I like the borrowed memories best. The polished stones from a garage sale bargain basket, the ones that can be intriguing or odd but don’t involve me. But it’s just more clutter: there’s no real distraction. Against the gash of giving Amy up, and Benjamin, and everything I’d planned or imagined for them both, was poised the physical effort of shutting down that imagining part of my brain. I didn’t want to think, ever, now they might have been doing this, or this. Today they’d be learning to walk. They might have shared a paper route. I wanted those memories to be real. But I can’t set my stones down, and my hands are as full as ever.

© Amalia Gladhart, 2010, 2011