MAY 2009 – NO. 33
The third selection by our guest fiction editor, Abby Frucht
"It feels like the doctor took my knee away," Will said.
Miranda and her son were eating scrambled eggs and toast in a diner on the main street in Calistoga, a hot springs resort town at the northern tip of the Napa Valley. It was spring break, only three months before Will was supposed to graduate, and he was still recovering from knee surgery for a ligament torn while playing football.
He winced as he got to his feet.
"I don't care if I ever play football again," he said. "I just want to ski."
Miranda remembered his face at the end of a ski run, lit from within with physical joy. He would come down the slopes ruddy with wind and tell her how he felt. "Sometimes you're one with the mountain, other times you come down on cat feet, all wobbly, and you're fighting it back and forth. You pick up speed incredibly fast. It's a rush. Sometimes you eat it." He grinned. "I even love falling on my ass."
"What?" he asked her now, alert.
"I'll never know what it feels like to ski," she said.
"Why not?" he asked. "You can learn. You're only 40."
"It's not about my age. I'm not fearless like you. I'll never fly down a mountain slope."
She thought about her dad. She and Jeb had taken her folks on a drive through Golden Gate Park, a few years before her father's stroke. They had stopped for three riders on horseback going full-speed along the trail. Her father, who was sitting in the back seat, spoke up. "I'll never know what it feels like to make love on the back of a galloping horse," he said. Her mother appeared not to have heard him. She was good at ignoring references to things she did not consider "polite." Jeb, who was driving, squeezed Miranda's knee. They exchanged a glance. Her father cleared his throat and changed the subject. The moment passed. But he had revealed a glimpse of a hidden interior, a tangle of legs. Miranda didn't want to think about his yearnings. She was struck by the finality of what he had said. "I'll never …. " She was irritated at him for signaling limits in his life, and at her mother for not responding in some way.
Now, listening to Will, it occurred to her that doors shut at various points. Possibilities, even fantasies were eliminated one by one. And you had to adjust.
"Flowers don't just bloom and bloom and bloom and bloom," she said.
"They stop, go dormant, revive." She wanted to explain the cycles of plants, of relationships, seasons. She thought it might help Will if he were to think of his injury-induced solitude as a dormant time to be followed by revival, and more chances to bloom.
"You just said 'bloom' four times," he said.
"Aha. You're noticing rhythms. That music appreciation course you took last semester isn't such a waste after all."
"I'd rather have been in bed sleeping than sitting in that room at 8:00 a.m. three mornings a week."
He paused and balanced himself on a bench on the street, stretching out his leg. He was in pain again.
"I know how you must feel, having this happen just before you finish school .… "
"You can't know." His voice was harsh. "It hurts like hell."
"I was about your age when you were born," she said lightly. "That involved some pain, and lots of physical changes. And you were my responsibility for life."
"Now is what I'm talking about, Mom. Now."
"Aren't you lonely?" Miranda had asked him after the hazy post-surgical weeks, when Will narrowed his world down to his dorm room, his doctor, his roommate, his physical therapist.
"I've got to guard my knee," he'd said. "I'm never going through this again."
He had been on crutches two months now. He had a month more to go, then a year of physical therapy. Before he hurt his knee he had been obsessed with finding the perfect first job after graduation, as if a misstep at the beginning of his work life would set him off kilter forever. After, he just wanted to walk again.
He had been pained like this once before, at the end of his freshman year. She hadn't recognized him when he came home after finishing the spring semester. He had become a man with a red-gold beard and shoulder-length blond hair. It was not his first manly beard that had made him seem a stranger. It was the withdrawn, wounded look in his eyes. He had lost the shining undefeated air that had shielded him from the social hurts most adolescents endured.
It was a girl. Rachel. They'd just broken up that week.
"I still love her," he said.
Miranda never would have discussed the end of a love affair with her parents. She hadn't even talked to them much about divorcing Danny and later marrying Jeb. Will was open, explicit.
"You just stopped seeing her," she said. "It will take awhile."
"You don't understand," he said, with an edge to his voice. He seemed to have to prove something in every conversation they had. "Rachel's dad died last year. Her mom is in her own head. Her stepfather is a jerk. She's pretty messed up. She doesn't know what it is to love."
"Then you made the right decision to end it."
"But she calls me all the time. It makes me miss her. How can I have loved someone for almost a year and then not see them again, ever?"
"That's how a lot of relationships end. Don't forget what happened to your dad and me."
"That was a long time ago. You and Jeb have been together, how long?"
"Going on 18 years."
"Right. Eighteen years."
He was morose. "But how can I not see her? Someone I loved so much. I really love her. More than anyone."
More than us? She didn't ask. He seemed to be waiting for her to say something so he could bat it down. She was losing patience.
"If seeing Rachel hurts you, if thinking about her leaves you feeling like this, don't do it. Let it be."
"But never see her again?"
"I can't understand how that could work. I know you and my father never see each other, sure, but you and Jeb …. "
"Wait," she said, recalling a parallel heartbreak from her own freshman year. "There was someone before Danny. Someone I met freshman year. His name was Ryan."
"Was he your boyfriend?" Will seemed interested.
"We went everywhere together all through freshman year. When summer came we wrote each other at least once a week. He met my plane when I went back to school in the fall. I hadn't dated anyone else all summer. He drove me to my dorm. We talked about the courses we were taking. He left around 11:00 p.m. that night. And I never saw him again."
"Never? That's unbelievable."
"Never. It has been more than 20 years and I still have no idea what went wrong. I stored my golf clubs at his fraternity for the summer, expecting to get them back in September, but I never did."
"You left your golf clubs there?" he asked with amazement.
"That's right. I just couldn't bring myself to walk up to that houseful of men after he dumped me."
"So what happened? You got new ones?"
Maybe it was different for men.
"I never played again."
"But you were a champ, with trophies."
"I met Danny, we married, you were born, we had our troubles, I moved out. Golf clubs never seemed important."
There was more to it. Her dad had given her those golf clubs as gifts over the years. A three iron for Christmas, a driver for a birthday, a putter for graduation from junior high. He had taught her to play, and she had won several state championships. Just before she'd finished high school they had played the usual nine holes together. She outdrove him on the first tee, and came in two under par to beat him by two strokes on the last hole. He was silent on the way home. The next day he took her to the club to "work on her drive."
"Keep your head down," he'd instructed. When she had raised up at the end of her drive, he had tapped her on the top of the head with his knuckle, a stinging hard knock that brought tears to her eyes. She'd kept quiet, although it seemed obvious he was punishing her for beating him. After that she had lost interest in golf. She had taken her clubs to college and never used them. She left them in Ryan's fraternity house. She fell in love with Danny, and her life found its shape.
Spring in the Napa Valley was a wet green time. The apple orchards bloomed, vineyards came to life again, mustard plants painted the edges of the meadows and pastures bright yellow. Steam from the hot springs hung over the hills as Miranda and Will checked into the reception area for their spa appointments after breakfast. Will seemed self-conscious about the crutches.
They separated at the door. He went into the men's section, she into the women's. She caught flashes of her blue sweater and blonde hair in the mirror as she undressed and wound herself into a white flannel sheet. The white-gowned attendant, a round-faced Japanese woman, led her down the hall past other white-wrapped bodies breathing softly into the dimness.
The black mud was piled high in a square-tiled tub. It was a mixture of volcanic ash and peat. The attendant instructed her to balance on the edge of the tub, swing her feet onto the top and lower her body.
"Stay on top," she said. "It's much hotter on the bottom."
She piled mud up to Miranda's chin.
"Twelve minutes," she said, and left her alone.
Miranda shut her eyes. A giant soft hand held her, supporting her at each curve, the perfect fit for her body. She could feel it beneath her knees, her arms. A ring of mud pillowed her neck. Peat gave the mud its porous quality. She imagined she was lying on a patch of sun-heated moss under a lofty tree; it gave way beneath her just enough for her body to settle in. She fit into this earth. It warmed her. She thought of herself at Will's age, fresh out of high school, riding in her boyfriend Ryan's Austin Healy convertible, head back to catch the strobe effect of the sun through the redwood trees, understanding even then that this was what carefree meant — not knowing how quickly it would end.
Suddenly she crossed an unanticipated line, moving in an instant from trust to fear. She was suspended in a heap of black muck, just a little more and she would be buried. This was a grave. She could fight it and panic, or relax and sink further.
Eyes shut, she settled in again. Someone placed an icy cloth on her brow. She wiggled from time to time. Then the attendant was back to help her out of the mud. She took a wooden rake to the tub and erased Miranda's shape, leaving a fresh mold for the next woman in line. She led Miranda to the shower, then to a footed tub of hot water with jets all around. Miranda rested her neck on the ledge and kept the tips of her fingers on the bottom of the tub so that her body floated lightly on the water.
At breakfast Will had asked her what it was like when he was born. She had told him the story before, many times. Now it was time again. Was this his way of asking about his father?
"I was your age," she began. "I woke around 2:00 a.m. with labor pains and asked Danny to fix me a boiled egg and toast."
"I didn't know how long it would take. I thought I would need food for energy. Then my contractions started coming fast and furious. Danny went into a panic. He was a brilliant scholar, but everyday things set him off. He bundled me into the car and drove frantically along the streets to the hospital. You've seen that place, streets and barriers every which way. It's a mess. Finally he aimed the car directly at the emergency room sign and drove toward it as the crow flies, up and over curbs and traffic islands."
"Sounds like he freaked," Will said. He smiled.
"And you were born that evening," she concluded, leaving out the pain of labor. Leaving out the fact that the first time she saw him, she knew she loved him. She didn't know how to say that without sounding sappy.
"You were having me all day?"
"It takes time. And from the beginning, you were distinctly yourself, like you had your own flavor."
"Right, like raspberry." He chuckled.
"You know what I mean. You haven't changed a bit."
The water in the mineral bath bubbled around her. The baby in the mother's body was cushioned in water. Then came birth.
After his stroke, Miranda's father had been fragile as a newborn. His face on the hospital pillow was washed free of expression. Looking into his eyes, she could see that he recognized her, and that something of who he was was still in there, despite the explosion in his brain. But mostly she saw confusion and fear. Whoever he was then, whoever he had been or would be, whatever he had done or not done, she loved him and she wanted to protect him from what was happening. But there wasn't much she could do.
Her father had been her guide into the world. Growing up, she had accompanied him to fundraising dinners and picnics, visits to raise money for the political causes and candidates he believed in. When she finished college and went to work as a journalist, he called her at least once a week. "What's new?" he always began. He loved hearing the ins and outs of office politics, and the back stories on the interviews she did. When she needed advice, he was there. Now he was gone.
Another memory floated up as she lay in the bubbling water. A night in San Francisco shortly after she had married Jeb. Will was three. Jeb was washing the dishes after dinner. Will came to her side and leaned against her, waiting for her arm to go around him. He was wearing jeans and a Peanuts sweatshirt, no shoes. Sometimes he wanted to crawl into her lap after dinner, reverting to a babyish habit, but this night he stood on his own. After a few minutes he pulled back to look at her, face to face.
"Mom, you marry me?" he asked.
"What, dear?" She wasn't sure if he knew what he was asking. That year, having gained a new stepfather, he had displayed a new sense of himself. He said things like, "Sometimes I don't like you, and sometimes I don't like me, either." And, "Sometimes Jeb is good, sometimes he's bad."
"Mom, you marry me?" he repeated.
"I can't marry you," she said. "I love you, you're my son. But I'm already married … to Jeb."
He pondered a second, then came right back. "Mom," he said in an insistent tone. "You marry me, too?"
She hugged him. That persistence would help him get what he wanted some day.
"You only marry one person at a time," she said. She wanted to keep it simple. She wasn't sure how much he understood about marriage. By then she had divorced Danny, who got so caught up in the tenure track he ignored her and the baby, and found Jeb, and married again. "And some day when you get older you'll find a girl to marry."
"Oh, okay, Mom," he said. He turned and trotted off to his playroom. His spirits didn't seem dampened. Soon he was busy "typing" away on an old Remington that had once belonged to her dad.
"Will just asked me to marry him," she said when Jeb came back to the table. She started to cry.
"You know, after all I've put him through — the divorce, the moving in and out of different houses. He loves me."
"Of course he loves you. We both do." Jeb stood behind her chair and massaged her neck where the tension gathered. "He just wants to know where he stands."
"Did you make a declaration like that to your mother?"
"Don't remember." He grinned.
"I'll bet you did." She could imagine Jeb at Will's age. "Maybe he won't remember either."
That was how it worked. Will's love for her would fade into some shadowy place, and be transformed into powerful feelings for a woman of his own some day.
Soon after that proposal Will lengthened out from baby to lad and discovered baseball. Then came the point when his remarkable energy diminished and he began to sleep 14 hours at a stretch. Suddenly he was more than six feet tall.
He was still growing. And Miranda still wondered if the breakup with Danny had created a scar she couldn't see.
She had been in the mineral bath nearly half an hour now. Her mind was calm. She was suspended in a riverbed, the stream passing over rocks. You can't stop the fact of time rushing by, you can't stop the changing, the steady passage to the end.
In the late afternoon they called Jeb back home in San Francisco .
"This is fun," Will told him. Miranda was relieved to hear the genuine enjoyment in his voice.
"Sounds like it's all working out," Jeb said when she came on the line.
"I'd forgotten how we used to like it here. We'll have to come back, all three of us." But even as she said it, she knew they wouldn't. This was a last time of sorts.
"Let's dress up for dinner," she suggested to Will that evening. She wore the red pantsuit and silk blouse she saved for editorial board luncheons with political candidates and city officials. Will wore the suit she bought him for job interviews. They settled into a booth in an Art Deco restaurant on the main street. Both ordered grilled salmon with basil puree. She started with polenta soup. He startled her by ordering half a dozen Olympia oysters on the half shell.
"I remember when you wouldn't touch anything raw, including vegetables," she teased.
Time to pull back. But first she asked a question she had been mulling over for awhile.
"You never mention your father. Is there anything you want to ask me about him?"
"Not really. He was smart, not a genetic freak or anything. That's all I need to know."
"Have you ever wanted to meet him?
"No. I have a father."
"It still hurts," she said. "Even though I was a different person then."
"Different how?" He was listening now.
"Right. I don't regret the divorce. I did what I felt I had to do. But it changed my life, and yours."
He shook his head. "That's your life. With me, it's a knee. I'm not sure it will ever be the same."
"You really don't feel bad about Danny?"
"Honest, Mom. I have my own problems."
"Wasn't I lucky to fall in love with a man who could love us both?"
"He got a pretty good deal, too."
"When you grin like that, you look just like Jeb. Strange, isn't it?"
She and Will walked back to the motel slowly, following the rhythm of his crutches.
"She had an abortion," he said softly.
"Who did?" Miranda was distracted, noticing how hobbled he was.
Of course. "When?" she asked.
"Right before I came home the summer after freshman year."
"You mean it was yours."
"Who else?" He was irritated.
"I didn't know."
Again, his voice had that new tone of adulthood, the man pushing away his mother. But Miranda was caught up in some new and terrible pain. His. Child. Would have been my. Grandchild. And it was too late to do anything.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"It wasn't about you. She was too young. She didn't want to ruin her life."
She felt sad for them, this girl she had never met, and Will. And a little angry.
"Is she all right?"
"What do you mean?"
"Was she okay afterward? Did she have a good doctor? Can she still have children, if she chooses?"
"Sure. We went to the health service. It cost me a bundle."
"I borrowed a thousand from my roommate. I worked in the student union washing dishes for six months to pay him back."
"So that's why your grades went down the next year?"
"Score one for Mom."
"And why you felt so bad about the breakup."
"What do you mean?"
"When you came home that summer you talked nonstop about Rachel."
"I don't remember."
"You don't? You were inconsolable. You felt so bad about losing her. Maybe it was because you might have been a father."
"I don't want any children."
"You're kidding. Why not?"
"The world is a mess. I can't even take care of myself. Right now I couldn't even run away from a mugger."
"Not now. But you'll get better. You'll meet someone."
"Good old Mom. The optimist. It all turns out fine, doesn't it."
She hated this new bitter tone.
Later that night, after Will had rested his knee, they went to the indoor mineral pool. They parted at the door, and Miranda walked past the steaming mud tubs to the dressing room. The place was eerily empty. As she bent to take off her shoes, she noticed a blur of blue and blonde. She assumed it was a mirror image. But when she stood, the other figure stayed bent over. She peered more closely. This was not a mirror but a doorway. Someone on the staff had left open a door between the men's and women's sections. There was Will, with his blond hair and blue bathing suit, alone in the dressing room, oblivious to her. Carefully he unstrapped the brace from his injured knee. Slowly he straightened the wounded leg out on the bench. Using his arms he pulled himself up and stood balancing on the other leg, reaching for the crutches. His back and shoulders were strong. He was gentle with his knee.
She was tempted to call out to him, but something held her back. He had a right to his solitude. She had given him what comfort she could, but his life was his own now. He was making choices that had nothing to do with her.
She headed to the water. In the indoor pool, his crutches aside, legs dangling weightlessly in the water, Will seemed at ease. As she settled her back against a jet of water across the pool from him, she noticed him eyeing a young woman in a bikini. Before the knee surgery, he'd been full of confidence, used to attracting women his age. He was in for a rough stretch now. She hoped the coldness she sensed in him was temporary, part of rehab. His child would have been walking by now. Surely he had thought of that.
For an instant she felt a rip in the continuity of her life, a bone-sharp pain. She had a visceral recall of her college-age self, stiff upper lip covering up whatever came her way. She'd been so careless. She'd abandoned her golf clubs without a thought just because a guy stopped seeing her. She'd stopped playing golf just because her father had knocked her on the head. Who knows what else she'd lost along the way.
She took a deep breath and let out the long sigh waiting there. There was so little time. Tomorrow she'd be back on her path, hurtling toward an immense unknown. She shut her eyes, leaned back and gave herself up to the warm and healing waters.
Original artwork courtesy Rob Grom.
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