I Shall Wear White Flannel Trousers, 3
The space between two hearts can be a hallowed and harrowing place, and our space widened the next day.
Daniel and I went for a walk. The roadside asters were dried to a crisp. There was no breeze. "That's a New England bog," I told him, nodding to an expanse on our left. Golden rod, purple loosestrife. "Those tall reeds are cattails. I don't think Ireland has them."
"I don't think so."
"Oh, they are so much fun." The heads, which look like stiff brown cigars and are also called candlewicks, were beginning to tuft. "We used to fight with them, and when you knock 'em together they explode into fluff." And all our hands, with the pollen, would turn yellow as butter.
(I realized later that cattails do grow in Ireland, and the evocative Irish for them is coigeal na mban sí – the spindle of the banshee. Yes: when the stalks dry out and the heads drool, they do look like raw wool.)
Our walk was short. Daniel was wilting.
"Let's turn around," I said. "Your body probably hasn't adjusted to the heat. We don't want you to fry."
Back at the cottage, we poured two glasses of water and sat in the shade on wrought-iron chairs. The sky was blue overhead; the clouds a tangle of smoke-grays and dusky yellows. Daniel's blackberry tart was on the table before us.
"You are having a piece."
"I will have a small piece," I agreed. "Will you do the honors?"
His knife hovered above the yellow custard. And then instead of slicing the tart down the middle, he cut off the west end, and then the east.
I sat looking at the shape he had created and found myself piqued. I had wanted, for some reason, a perfect line skidding down the diameter. Instead the tart was an awkward rectangle, its organs exposed -- dripping and nighttime-purple.
"You are judging my slicing right now. Ferociously. I can tell."
"No, I'm not! I'm just. . . all right, yes, I am."
"No, I've just never seen cake cut that way. It's cute."
"I suppose I did cut it strangely." His fork hesitated. "There was logic to it, but I can't remember it now."
At his uncertainty, his little-boy sweetness, I melted. I took a bite of the confection. He did, too.
It was rich and gummy. And before Daniel even spat out his mouthful, I said, "You're not going to like this," because it was frangipane.
"Insidious!" he said, dropping his fork on his plate. "Who puts almond in a blackberry tart?"
"Yeah, that was deceiving. But we can leave it in the fridge for my friends."
"You know what we should do," said Daniel, pushing his plate away, "is clean up and pack for five minutes. Five minutes and then we don't have to think about it anymore."
We carried our dishes inside, and Daniel offered to wash up. I said I would pack and load the car. To the background sounds of knocking dishes, I ran around: dropping towels into the laundry pile, folding my clothes, upending pillows. Finally I looked at Daniel's suitcase, open on the ground.
It was a new suitcase, with plastic lids, and both sides were full of clothing, negotiating every corner.
I had never seen a suitcase like it. I could not compute how to keep the clothing folded and still close it. There were flaps and straps, zippers and some flimsy buckles: all looking superfluous. Four minutes and thirty seconds. This was going to be a mess, I knew. What in the world. How did this work? Some kind of centrifugal force -- a fast swing? That was it. The fastness. The faster I closed it, the better. Yes. Everything would just clap together and land like magnets, sticking cleanly and staying folded. Yup.
I gave it a clap and that didn't happen.
"Um. . . Daniel?" with thin laughter.
"What did you do, my darling dope?" I heard a mild clank in the sink as he put a dish down. He came into the room with sudsy hands.
And then he looked down at the suitcase. One or two socks nosed their way out of the lid. I knew it was bad. He knew it, too. Immediately his face darkened; his mouth became a hard line. The creases of his eyes blackened. I could not have felt his anger more if he had walked over to me and slapped me -- with a cold hand -- across the face. My chest iced-over as if he had. He didn't move and I was frightened.
"Oh, my gosh. That was really stupid of me. I was just racing around. And I just thought if I clapped it --" I fanned my arms, "I don't know. I was rushing. I should've stopped to ask."
"Yes, you should have," he said shortly.
"Do you want me to try to fix it? Do you want me to try to re-pack --"
"No," he said, stirring himself -- a couple of bubbles sprang off his hands -- "I'll just finish the dishes and then re-pack it myself."
"All right. I'll load up the car, then. Oh, my gosh, I'm really so sorry, Daniel. It was completely thoughtless of me. I just moved too quickly."
"It's okay," he said, returning to the kitchen.
Then I looked down at his suitcase, a perky blue. And suddenly I hated it. I hated the whole plump thing. The plastic clipped shut, and whatever entrails were now jumbled inside. I hated his trousers and his long woolen socks, their black necks strangled together in a scrawny knot. I hated his crisp shirts with their tropical colors, with their green edges and perfect coral creases. I hated that I had messed it up -- smudged the entire palette. But most of all I hated his woolen socks, with their chicken necks. Noosey.
I dragged my duffel bag and my laptop case outside, and both things felt heavier. I heaved the bags into the trunk of my car. I returned to the cottage, sugar-crusted and tight. I had removed myself a mile away, retreating into the farthest corner of myself. He was standing in the living room, and my eyes dodged his body.
But he was softer already, and his hands were dry. "Let's see what the damage is."
"No, I can't bear to look. The gore."
"Oh," he said, peeling apart the suitcase gingerly, "it's actually not bad at all. I was imagining much worse. But see, look, you clown. See this flap here? It zippers up, and that keeps the other half of the clothes in. But if you had even just closed it with the other side, it would have been fine."
"I'm sorry I snapped at you," Daniel said.
"Well, I didn't exactly snap --"
"No, but I knew you were angry at me."
"I don't know why I reacted that way. It just hit me in the moment and seemed like a much bigger deal than it really was."
"I understand why. It's because you invested time and energy into packing, and I undid it all."
"Eh. Just a couple of shirts fell out and some socks, which don't matter at all. And I have to iron everything anyway. They were all wrinkled."
"You are being very gracious, saying that."
When my friends returned to reclaim their bungalow -- one of them, also named Dan, scooping Bigby up into his arms, paws in the air, like a baby -- we drove to my parents' house, ten miles away. It was a large yellow colonial with an aqua-colored door, in a wooded suburban town. Daniel loved the rose bushes on the lawn, and the saltwater heated pool. And my family loved him.
I carried our bags down into the basement. It was a finished basement: the lights florescent, the carpets synthetic, and the walls white. It smelled faintly of paint to me. He said it was perfect.
"No, I don't know. I was comparing it to the pink room in your house --"
"It's just what I want."
"I don't know. I've been worried about it."
"No, Sarah; it's perfect."
There were two beds next to each other, and I folded comforters over a mattress until it was padded enough for his back. He stretched out for a nap, and I went outside.
I walked up to the woods and wandered the path, not very far. I sat down on a stump. Maybe it was a cedar stump. Either way, it was crumbling. And I looked at the princess pine at my feet, scrubby hands reaching up, dwarfish and wimpling, but they looked like blocks of green. I leaned forward, my head hurting. I felt like I had cobwebs over my irises. I put my face in my hands. I stayed there for an hour. Maybe more. The sun started setting, scattering orange through the leaves. Making the woods smell like cinnamon. Mosquitoes started biting my ankle bone. I got up and went home.
I opened the back slider and stepped inside. I shunted my flip flops across the kitchen floor. Daniel was awake by then. He was sitting at the island stool, eating. I grabbed a red apple from a bowl.
"Guys," I said. "I really don't know what to do with myself." I started pacing, rubbing the apple between my hands.
My mother was standing at the stove, stirring a pot.
"It's like -- all this time I've been walking around with a stubbed toe, and that was losing Mike." The skin was becoming very shiny.
My mother didn't look up, but I wasn't looking at her either. Red and very shiny. "You really still think about Mike?"
He was my only other boyfriend, whom I met in college. "Yeah, all the time. But this break-up -- this was like tripping and putting my head through a glass window. I forgot all about my toe."
"Oh, honey." My mom dropped the spoon, crossed the kitchen, and wrapped her arms around me. I could feel her hair's static against my cheek. She rubbed my back. "My poor Sarah. My poor baby."
"Have you told him how you feel?" She let go.
"No. We haven't talked in a week."
"Well, maybe you should tell him." She stepped back to the stove.
"I don't know." I turned around and rolled the apple along the island top. "He's probably intellectually convinced himself that he's done the right thing."
"But it could be for your own relief, Sarah." She uncovered the pot. "You've just been carrying this around inside of you."
I saw Daniel look at me, and then look down at his food. I noticed he was eating General Tso's chicken. My mom had made it, battered and fried. He was looking at his plate intently. The pieces were glossy, congealed, orange.
Later I approached him. He was in the basement, laying things out on a shelf: phone charger, retainer case.
"Are you combobula, honey?" sitting down on the second bed.
"Oh, okay. Good."
"I think I'm just tired."
"Me, too. Should we sluggify now?"
Daniel laid down on his bed and crossed his legs. I realized that my bed, a futon, had an iron bar across the middle. So I tried to plump the mattress with two sleeping bags. While folding a comforter over these, my phone suddenly rang. I picked it up, and it was an American girl that Daniel and I had met in Ireland. A native New Yorker. I put it on speaker phone. We chatted briefly; gushed.
"Where are you living now?" she asked me.
I remembered her perfectly: Ruby was young; her face was teak and thin. Her eyes were beautiful macadamia nuts. She had hair down to her waist, sleek. She wore a sage-green fleece and ran ten miles a day. She had knotted knuckles, and thin hands. There was something decidedly sensitive about her, under her Long Island toughness. The poor side of Long Island, she would say. Frequently I looked at her and felt like there was a four-year old girl inside that I wanted to protect. I remember her once falling asleep in my bed at Beatha, and staring at the sharp angles of her face on the white pillow, her body curled-up. Her brown hair looked so soft. Her eyelids were bird eggs. No, raw baby birds themselves. Those were Daniel's words.
"Boston," I said.
"Or near Boston."
"Sarah! I'm moving to Boston tomorrow!" She sounded as if she would cry. She was screaming. Daniel swung up off the bed and took the phone.
"Daniel! Is that your voice!"
"Did I hear you say you're moving to Boston?"
"My flight is tomorrow morning!"
"No! I was going to explore Boston tomorrow!"
"What! No! No! No, you're joking!"
"No, I'm not!"
I listened to them shriek, and felt a carnival of emotions that were hard to pin down. Black jagged shapes. The sounds too loud. I backed away from Daniel and the phone, as if from a pack of young hyenas, snorting and tearing apart bloody meat. I wanted to join the jubilee, to puncture the blue ceiling like a kite with them, but I couldn't. Too loud.
"Honey-Patricia, c'mere, listen. Text Sarah your address, okay? I'm taking the train in, and I'll figure out how to get to your flat."
"I'll be at work, though. I'm flying in and starting my new job the same day."
"Oh, psh, I'll meet you afterwards."
She said something that was unintelligible to me, but by this time I was tuning them both out. I was on the computer, looking up the timetable for the commuter rail. Trying to shield myself against the screams. The shrieks that neither Daniel nor I had given each other. Not once. Not yet. Maybe that was it.
Maybe that was it, right there.
"Okay, Dolly, well, text Sarah your address, okay?"
"I will. Oh, Daniel. I can't wait to see you, I can't wait to see you, I can't wait, I can't wait, oh!"
"I am going to flipping fling myself on you when I see you."
"I am going to die."
I was smiling at Daniel when he hung up. "I found the train times for you," I said, handing him a sheet of paper. "And I asked my brother David, and he can take you to the station while I'm at work."
"Thanks so much for that, love." His voice was quieter, still looking down at my phone.
Where did we go from there. From that excitement. The basement was strangely silent, echoing with the screams.
I dimmed the lights and set my alarm clock for 6:30 a.m. He laid down. I continued trying to fix my bed. He pattered on his own phone for a while. Then --
"Sarah, can I tell you something?" he said, shutting off his phone with a snap and putting it aside.
"Of course!" Immediately I didn't look at him. "You can tell me anything."
"Well, it's just that. . . I don't know. Don't think me foolish."
"I won't." I was on all fours, pushing the comforter down into the crack against the wall.
"I am just afraid you are going to get annoyed with me on this trip." His voice was now water-bubbly, like a swamp iris.
"Annoyed with. . . Wait -- really?" I looked at him. His lips were closed, purplish. I suddenly felt very protective, golden and velvety, and I crawled across my padded bed to him. I crouched down. "What made you worried about that, hun?"
"It's just -- oh, I don't know."
"Have I made you feel that way recently? Danny, I'm not going to be annoyed."
"But promise you'll tell me if I'm irritating you."
"Of course I'll tell you, but you won't irritate me."
"Or if you're losing patience with my presence --"
"Oh, hush-shush. Listen."
I moved my mouth into shapes to tell him that I loved him. I reassured him that I wanted him there. That I wanted nothing more. I told him I needed him in this particular moment. That I wanted him specifically. Sceitimíní -- bubbling with joy. I celebrated his presence perpetually.
But my words, however much I meant them to the letter, were paper shapes on my tongue. They were none of them globes lit up with inner radiance. I knew what needed to be said, and I said it.
And while I spoke I did not reach over to him. He still had the scent of the new plastic suitcase on him, of magazines on a plane, of too much shampoo. And I had thought we were broken-in with each other: an eternal mess of sweet and happy mistakes. Once I spilled an entire bottle of cream on his kitchen floor and he called me a blithering idiot -- with love and affection.
I finished talking and turned aside. I smoothed the last rumple on the comforter and laid down. I had a sensation, though I could not put it into words: that both the beauty and ghastliness of an intimate friendship is how thin the veil can be between two people. It can be so thin that all the veins are apparent, and all the flickers of sharks and whales are visible.
So I suddenly said, "Those things are true," feeling an ache in my side. "But I'm sorry I'm so blah. I can't help it. In my heart I am bouncing off the walls. I wish my body could do the same. It just can't for some reason right now." Yes, the iron bar was grinding against my hip bone. "But I want you to know -- I wish I could give off electricity and euphoria and all those things you deserve. And I feel so guilty that I'm not. You traveled three thousand miles to see me, and I can't even give off a spark."
"No, no. You know who will give me fireworks, is Ruby tomorrow. We will give her that role, okay? You don't have to be effusive. That is off your shoulders."
"Okay," I said, but I flinched. Not because of him, but because of the situation. Because it necessitated that my role be given to someone else.
That night, sleep eluded me. I even tried plumping the futon with a third sleeping bag. I tried to bend my knees around the iron bar, wriggling with pillows in different positions -- but comfort was impossible. I was painfully crunched up, molding myself, distorted. Either way, there was metal in my legs, on my back. Daniel's breathing became even and deep.
Finally at one o'clock in the morning, I got up and geisha-footed away.
I padded up two flights of stairs in the dark, found my own bed -- a real bed -- and sank down into it. Bliss. I instantly fell asleep.
Two hours later my door creaked opened and a figure stepped through the gloom, found me in my soft nest, and pulled me out of my stupor.
I struggled up, my blankets tumbling off my shoulders.
"You left me!"
I gummed up at Daniel, blue from his phone screen. The world looked double: soft around the edges. I reached over and fumbled with the lamp. When I snapped on the light, my eyesight sharpened, and he was icy.
"You left me. In a basement. Alone. A basement. Alone."
"There was -- an iron bar."
"I didn't want to wake you up."
"But I love second sleeps. You know that."
"I know, I just didn't want to --"
"You abandoned me in a basement!"
"I wasn't thinking you'd wake up at all."
"I woke up terrified. I didn't know where you had gone. I turned on my mobile and your bed was empty. Think of what I thought."
"I'm sorry, hun," I said, feeling fuzzy-brained and suddenly very irritated. "There was an iron bar," I repeated.
He paused. "Alright," he said. "I just wanted to make sure you were okay. And weren't -- I don't know, kidnapped by marauders."
"I'm safe and sound," I said, slinking back down, now worried he had woken up my parents or autistic brother, who slept across the hall. "I hope you can go back to sleep."
"Now I can. Goodnight," he said, and --
"Careful, careful," I couldn't help hissing, as he went to close my door, imagining a loud click. But he closed it softly.
Then I curled up back into my hot nest and closed my eyes.
Thirty seconds later I opened my lids.
"Oh, good grief." I switched up my blankets around my shoulders and flitted down to the basement, where I found him, with all one-dozen electric bulbs buzzing, in white-gold light, his sheets tucked tightly around his body and staring up at the ceiling, as if in a crypt.
"Sweetie, go up to my bed."
"I was just going to keep all the lights on."
"No, no. You'll be surrounded by other people. You'll feel better. I've slept in basements all my life. Go on."
He got up and gathered his blankets. "All I know about basements," he said, "are from American horror films."
"I know, hun. I didn't think about that until afterwards. Sleep well."
The next day, Daniel took the train to Boston, and I went to work. I was a nanny in a nearby town. In their home, I opened the calendar and counted the days. "Seventeen days." I counted again. "Seventeen days. I can do it." I hefted the baby up in my arms, with farmer-blond hair. I kissed his squishy cheek. "Well, this counts in the top ten worst things that have happened to me. So glad I have you for distraction, sweet boy."
Then I sat down with him, and was not distracted at all.
I remembered, once, my boyfriend and I were in the city park as the sun was going down. We were at the top of a hill, our knees drawn up, nestling into each other. I whispered, "The only thing missing is bird song. They must have all gone to sleep."
Very close to me, I heard a whistle, melodic and sweet. And I gasped, "Wait, I heard one! Can you even believe that? Right as I said there were no birds. . ."
"That was me, Sarah."
". . .Oh."
From somewhere deep in the forest, there was a returning call. A sleepy robin had roused itself and sent back a rain of song through the dying sun.
And my sweetheart whistled a response, an exact replica, and the robin fluted its joyous twitters again.
"That's it," I said. "You can talk with birds." I flicked up my hands. "Please tell me what you can't do. Please. You can talk with birds."
After work that night, I was grateful to be by myself again. Grateful to sleep in my own bed, underneath the cool sheets.