[img_assist|nid=629|title=Look Who’s Talking by Clara Pfefferkorn|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=200|height=150]It was Christmas, the first Christmas after Claire’s wedding, and Deirdre did not seem well. This wasn’t an easy distinction, as Claire’s mother had spent two decades complaining about this pain or that one, her migraines and fevers and swollen feet. But this time she seemed uncharacteristically quiet, weakened on the inside. Every visible feature was frantic, insistent, too bright.
Claire, now a married woman, was capitalizing on the new freedom this allowed. Being half a “we” gave her license to control her comings and goings, to claim “they” were needed elsewhere, part of a tangled, busy married life she was not obligated to divulge. She and Bob had spent Christmas Day with his family and came to Philadelphia two days later. The plan enabled Claire to sidestep the Gallagher Christmas traditions—she was no longer a Gallagher, so she could refer to them this way—like Midnight Mass at St. Cecilia’s, after which Deirdre plucked hay from the crèche to tuck inside their wallets and Father Mike clasped her thick hands in his thin ones, leaning forward to offer holiday wishes that were extra-sincere, his blue-gray eyes wide and unblinking in acknowledgment of Deirdre’s devotion to the church and long history of suffering.
Claire always felt uncomfortable around her mother’s piousness, which seemed such a contradiction to her personality at home. Two days later, Deirdre lay across the couch in one of her new Christmas presents: a silky, eggplant-colored bathrobe, the sash knotted around the bubble of her stomach and purple clashing with her hair. The pocket on the front was probably intended to be decorative but Deirdre had packed it like a purse—a rosary, a wad of Kleenex, an emergency tube of lipstick (just in case, lounging around her own home, she needed to reapply). Gene was wearing his red cable-knit sweater. His “Santa sweater,” Deirdre called it. He occupied his usual spot, in the most uncomfortable chair in the room.
Claire, Bob and Claire’s sister , Noelle , assumed the role of children, sitting on the floor among the strewn ribbons, ripped wrapping, and Deirdre’s swollen, pink-slippered feet.
“Your family celebrates Christmas, right?” Deirdre asked.
The question was directed at Bob, though it lacked its usual sharpness; like everything about Deirdre that day, the words seemed dulled.
“Of course they do,” Claire answered for him. “We were just there. Remember?” She felt a flash of panic, wondering if her mother’s memory might be slipping—“cognitive dysfunction,” it was called, common in the later stages of the disease, though Deirdre had never shown any signs of it. “We just came from there, remember?”
“Of course I remember,” Deirdre snapped. “I just thought they might be—what’s it called?”
“ Dee ,” Gene cautioned.
“Agnostic,” Bob said. “But my family’s, ah, Presbyterian.”
Deirdre made a small noise in her throat, condescending but vaguely conciliatory, the combined effect of her deep-seeded Catholic-Protestant one-upmanship and grudging approval that at least the parents weren’t agnostics too.
“My turn,” Noelle said, picking up her next gift. They were rotating, opening presents one at a time. Claire had always hated this system, all the slow pomp and performance, but it was the kind of focused attention Noelle liked, and Deirdre insisted on.
The gift was from Claire and Bob, a thick gray wool scarf Noelle seemed to not hate—or at least, think Paul would not hate. “I can totally see Paul stealing this,” she said. Noelle and Paul hadn’t seen each other since August at the Jersey shore but, to Claire’s surprise, were still going strong. They called and wrote letters; he was coming to visit for New Year’s. Noelle, it seemed, was in love, Paul occupying the front room of her brain like a filter coloring her every thought.
Gene opened next: a wool sweater, solid brown. More dignified, Claire thought, than the red one.
“Thank you, honey,” Gene said.
[img_assist|nid=628|title=Emergence by Gary Koenitzer|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=200|height=132]“Made by local craftsmen,” Claire explained. It sounded stupid, but she had taken special care with her gifts that year, chosen them to evoke her new life in New Hampshire . Wool and flannel, hand-dipped candles that smelled like pine and cedar, and all the traditional foods of New England : pancake mixes, clam chowders, maple syrup, maple candies shaped like leaves and rolled in sugar. Her family had never suggested coming to visit, but neither had she. It was just as well. The accoutrements of their life—like the moving announcements and perky, annotated cookbooks—had more charm than the life.
Bob was next. So far, his gift pile amounted to a stack of slippery gift cards: Barnes & Noble, Sam Goody, The Gap. But this last gift, from Deirdre, was large and awkward. Deirdre perked up as he started to tear it open, pushing up on her elbows to get a better look. When he saw what was inside, Bob laughed out loud, something he almost never did—the sound was abrupt, as if his lungs had been caught off-guard.
“What is it?” Noelle asked.
He held it up. It was one of those music-activated dancing salmon, probably purchased at a mall kiosk. The fish was wearing black sunglasses and mounted on a wooden plaque. Claire was suspicious: had her mother deliberately given Bob something tacky to undermine his “smart-shmartness”?
But one look at Deirdre revealed that she was genuinely enamored with the dancing fish. She laughed and laughed as it wiggled and pelvic-thrusted to a throaty Elvis impression of “Heartbreak Hotel.” Bob seemed to enjoy it as much as she did; his eyes were wet, the laughter like a dry whistle in his throat.
“It’s funny, isn’t it?” Deirdre kept saying. “Isn’t it funny?”
They ran through the salmon’s entire repertoire—“Rock Around the Clock” and “Blue Moon” and “Heartbreak Hotel” again—and Deirdre’s enjoyment never waned. Claire was surprised, even touched, that her mother had bought it. Maybe she was beginning to like Bob more. But as she watched her, Claire felt a sadness build in her chest like swallowed water, filling her until it was a solid, stunning ache. Her mother seemed suddenly old: one of those women who delighted in silly television commercials or moving displays in store windows, who watched other people’s puppies or babies with a joy so disproportionate it only reinforced what their own lives were not.
After the torn wrapping was shoved into garbage bags and hauled to the curb, Bob went to get their suitcases. Claire went upstairs, where she could be alone. Unlike Noelle’s room, which she had lived in off and on in college, Claire’s room had hardly been touched since high school. Her old desk still faced the window, where she’d preferred it. She’d liked being able to tilt her eyes toward the sky when she was writing in her diary, imagining herself one of those girls in the movies who crawled onto her roof to smoke cigarettes or, at the very least, gaze at the stars while thoughtfully tapping a pen against her cheek. Above the desk hung the red bulletin board that had seen all her awards; unlike athletic trophies, most academic prizes were subtle, just a piece of paper destined for a brief life under a thumbtack or a magnet on a refrigerator door. A few still remained: a faded second-place ribbon, some merit certificates, and a dead wrist corsage from her senior prom; in a certain way, a mark of achievement itself.
In the middle of the room sat her bed, mattress sagging where the springs had begun poking through the bottom. The bedside table was empty except for a chubby, spiral notebook with a lightbulb on the cover. Bright Ideas! She had bought it for herself once at a school book fair, enamored with the possibility of scribbling down half-remembered ideas that struck her in the middle of the night. Turned out, she rarely had any. Along the far wall stood her two bookcases: pale, bulging towers made of cheap, assemble-yourself wood, both of them listing slightly to the left. Her books were all still there, organized by size: soft paperbacks on the topmost shelves and heavy books along the bottom—her old sticker collection, the Children’s Illustrated Bible, Acing the SAT, the dictionary she’d received as what seemed a backhanded consolation prize for being runner-up in the spelling bee.
Claire knew the geography of this room by heart, every physical inch of it, but what struck her most every time she returned was the memory of how it felt: a combination of coziness and claustrophobia, like suffocating in a cloud. This room had been her escape, an island of order and comfort, but it was a tense comfort, made necessary by the pressure of the house on the other side of the door.
She heard Bob’s footsteps shuffling up the stairs. When he appeared in the doorway, with a suitcase in each hand and Claire’s purse slung gracelessly around his neck, the sight of him triggered a rush of—was it love? Was it gratitude?
“Hi, darling,” Bob said, and Claire’s love for him exploded in her chest.
It wasn’t fair, but wasn’t uncommon, for Claire’s feelings for Bob to be a product of context. It had been true that first afternoon on the quad; it was true when she was in Bob’s natural habitat, buffeted by his admiring colleagues. Watching him deliver a lecture, his wrinkled clothes and gangly limbs never looked more attractive, evidence of his intellect, his “ahs” no longer a nervous affectation but the necessary punctuation in a long, complicated equation. Sometimes, at home, Claire tried to conjure up those moments, and if she tried hard enough the world’s perception of her husband would infuse, briefly, her own.
Around her family, her feelings for Bob were at their most unpredictable. If he said the wrong thing she winced deeply, knowing the potential damage done. But if he elicited a laugh from her father or a smile from her mother, affection leapt inside her, as it did now, watching him disentangle the bags from his fingers and lower himself to the edge of her childhood bed. This man was the buffer between her old life and her new. Whatever sadness had filled her downstairs with her family, Claire knew her responsibility had shifted: to her own family. She was married now, and wife trumped daughter.
Bob wrapped his hands around his kneecaps. He looked like a blond giant in a dollhouse, trying to take up as little space as possible out of respect for this young girl’s room. Suddenly, Claire could picture Bob a father. How awkwardly gentle he would be holding a baby, how patiently he would explain things, how seriously he would puzzle over algebra problems, butter toast, and bandage knees. How uncomfortable he would be around his daughter’s moods and changes from ages twelve to eighteen.
Claire closed the door and locked it. She slid off Bob’s glasses, placed them on the bedside table, and pressed her finger to his lips. He smiled. This was not unfamiliar; it felt like the old days, hiding in Bob’s office or Claire’s dorm room and struggling to stay quiet. At the Institute, he was far too busy, too visible. And in their own bed, where they could be as loud as they wanted, they rarely made a sound.
Now Claire was biting her lip as Bob pulled off her sweater and unclasped her bra. It was the first time she had ever been alone in her room with a boy. She tugged off his pants, cringing a little at the sound of the belt buckle hitting the floor. When Bob started to peel back the comforter, she pushed him down on top of the covers instead. As she straddled his hips with her knees, the sound of footsteps came bouncing up the stairs. They stopped and stared at each other, with the wide, caught eyes of high school kids in a backseat.
“Dinner,” Noelle called up, sounding bored.
Claire’s response was a too sprightly: “Be right down!”
At dinner Claire felt satisfied, and self-satisfied. She felt a rush of guilty pleasure when she took in Bob’s rumpled appearance, hair still mussed in the back and neck flushed a telltale pink. When she felt his hand brush her leg under the table, she looked at him and smiled.
“Did I tell you what Paul said about Christmas in Ireland?” Noelle was saying. “When he was little it was the one day a year they got to eat American fast food.”
It was their age-old dynamic: Noelle talking, everybody listening. Tonight, though, Deirdre was not her usual captive audience. She was mumbling, the words soft and muddled, mostly indistinguishable, but the undertone was defiant; it sounded as if she was arguing with someone, though it wasn’t clear whom.
“Here we eat McDonalds every day, but over there it was like this big annual road trip,” Noelle went on, a fork piled with mashed potatoes hovering over her plate. “They drove an hour to get a Big Mac. Isn’t that so funny and, like, gross?”
Without her sidekick, Noelle’s words felt too big, too much. Finally she stopped talking and looked at Deirdre. “You feel like shit, huh, Mom?”
In the pause, a few of Deirdre’s words became discernible: hot, foot, chest.
“Your chest?” Gene said. For Deirdre to have chest pains was not unheard of; like every symptom, they flared and faded, but always sounded more ominous than the symptoms they could see. “ Dee, what about your chest?” he said.
Deirdre looked up and enunciated, quite clearly: “I have chest pains.” Then she looked at the spread on the table and with equal firmness said: “I’ll have more meat.”
Claire’s guilty pleasure was eroding, whittled down to guilt alone. It was the guilt she’d felt as a child: knowledge she’d done something she shouldn’t, been somewhere she shouldn’t, and worse, that her family had been right there, oblivious on the other side. Or tonight, in her mother’s case, oblivious and in pain. Sitting between her mother in her garish bathrobe and her husband with his warm hand and his pink neck, Claire felt like screaming, like shrugging off her skin. When Bob touched her knee again, she twitched away, wishing he were more sensitive, more attuned to her feelings—wasn’t that part of being a husband, to hone in on your wife’s foot tapping or vein bulging in her left temple and know exactly what that meant?
After dinner, Claire excused herself and went upstairs. She closed her bedroom door, covered her mouth with one hand and cried. The bedcovers were wrinkled and sliding onto the carpet. Bright Ideas! was knocked upside-down on the floor. This room didn’t belong to her anymore, but to some younger, better her. Claire caught her reflection in the long mirror, the same mirror where she used to survey her outfits and analyze her facial expressions—Exuberance, Studiousness, Thoughtfulness—trying to look at herself objectively, to see what the world saw. Now, she felt like more than an older version of herself; she felt like a separate person.She had been kinder then, she thought, happier. Inclined to love things. She had loved her room and loved her books and loved, Claire thought, herself, the realization so swollen with sadness that it only revealed, like those lonely old women with the babies and puppies, everything she was not now.
Then she heard it: from one staircase , three rooms and one closed door away, the instant her mother’s hand moved toward the kitchen window. As a child, she had memorized the sound of pills tipping from a bottle—it was deceptively gentle, like a rainstick, a sun shower—and the sound of nothingness as pills struck palm. In high school, she had learned the sound of her mother’s cane in motion: intervals of carpet and linoleum, hard tapping and soft silence. But in the mirror, as Claire watched herself listening, her expression was one she hadn’t seen before, didn’t even know she wore: Despair.
Suddenly the room felt small and close and Claire felt huge, filled with this new feeling. It seemed a terribly seasoned, knowing kind of sadness. Despair that her mother took the pills. Despair that she needed them. Despair that she pretended to be thick-skinned and impervious when really she was sick and getting sicker and despair that she made Claire want to leave—though this, at least, was a feeling Claire recognized. And unlike when she was a child, now she could.
“I’m thinking we should go tonight,” Claire said. She had returned to the living room, where everyone was sitting around the TV. Her hands were shaking, her face washed and lipstick reapplied.
Gene looked up. “What, honey?”
“I said, I think we might leave tonight after all,” she said.
“Wow,” Noelle said. “Happy to see us, huh?”
“Tonight?” Gene said. “Why?”
Claire would avoid her father’s eyes. She would pretend not to have seen the makings of tomorrow’s family breakfast in the fridge. “It’s just— .” Her eyes alighted on the TV screen: onyx earrings on a bed of puffy fake snow. “The roads at night are so much emptier. It’s just easier.” She knew how hollow it sounded, and knew they knew it, but the need to leave was almost physical. She could not stay.
Then Deirdre said, “You’re not staying over?”
Claire forced her eyes to meet her mother’s. The combination of her purples and oranges, her rash and her makeup, was at once so comic and tragic that Claire felt like breaking down in tears at her feet, hating and loving her as strongly and simultaneously as she ever had.
“We really need to,” Claire said, but her voice sounded strained. “We need to get back.”
For a moment the room was caught in her pause, waiting to see if she would change her mind. But she didn’t have to, she told herself: it was the royal, marital “we.” She would leave because she could. She wouldn’t look at her father, or her mother, or even Bob, who m she knew would be unable to disguise his confusion. She opted for Noelle, which might have been the worst choice of all: clear-eyed knowing.
“Bob has a meeting tomorrow afternoon,” Claire said, the words tumbling out before she could stop them. “He forgot.”
Upstairs, she apologized. “I don’t know why I said that.”
Bob was collecting their things from the guest bathroom: tiny mouthwash, tiny toothpaste, Claire’s contacts swimming in saline solution. She stood just inside the doorway. The room smelled like the green bricks of Irish Spring soap that anchored the ledges in the sink and shower.
“I just can’t stay tonight,” Claire said. “I can’t explain it. I couldn’t think of a better excuse.”
Bob sealed the toiletry bag with a brisk zip. His hair was still mussed in the back and she resisted the urge to smooth it.
“I can help with the driving,” she offered.
Bob looked up, into the mirror above the sink, and stood perfectly still. Claire stepped between her husband and his reflection. She leaned into his long chest. When she felt his arms encircle her back, she felt relieved, though the gesture could have meant anything; maybe he understood her, maybe he forgave her. Maybe he was just being polite.
When they carried the bags outside, it was windy and bitterly cold. A thin crust of snow crunched under their feet as they moved down the front walk. They made an ungainly procession, the shuffling of five pairs of shoes and dull squeaking of Deirdre’s rubber-tipped cane on the snow. At the curb, when Claire leaned in to kiss her mother, her cheek was freezing. “You shouldn’t be out in this cold,” Claire said, then climbed into the car.
From the passenger seat, she looked at the shadowy figures that were her family. Gene held one palm in the air. Noelle was already hugging her shoulders and heading back inside. Deirdre looked like some kind of suburban sorceress, leaning forward on her cane, her silky purple robe flapping behind her in the wind.
When Bob started the car, Deirdre stepped forward. She pulled a plastic spritzer from the pocket of her robe and doused the windshield with miraculous water, scooped from the ocean and blessed by the priest at the Jersey shore the previous summer. It was an extra dose, probably proportionate to the lateness of the hour and the intensity of her worry. “May the road rise to meet you!” Claire heard her shout, but faintly, the sound flattened by the tight windows and the running engine. When Deirdre stepped back to the curb, and Bob pulled away, the image of her parents looked watery and distorted. As soon as they turned the corner, Bob flicked the windshield wipers on.
“What are you doing?” Claire snapped.
“I couldn’t see,” Bob said, reasonably.
Claire fell silent, rigid. Her eyes filled with tears. When Bob glanced at her, she turned to the window. “What?” he asked.
And again, a block later: “What?”
By two in the morning, Bob was so exhausted he was veering in and out of the lanes on 84. They switched near Worcester , where Claire got a large coffee and drove the last leg herself. She felt almost maniacally alert as she sped along the empty highways, needing to prove this drive had been doable, the foam coffee cup squeaking in and out of the cup holder’s plastic claw. When she got off the highway it was four in the morning. The streets of New Hampshire were quiet, forgiving. When a rare pair of oncoming headlights—a truck usually, or tractor trailer—splashed against the windshield, the reflection of the miraculous water flashed for an instant then receded into dark.
Copyright © 2007 by Elise Juska. Printed by permission. Excerpted from the forthcoming book One for Sorrow, Two for Joy by Elise Juska to be published by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. (Available June 5, 2007 at your local bookstore and at www.simonsays.com).
© 2006 Philadelphia Stories December, 2006
Elise Juska is the author of two previous novels and many published stories. Elise teaches fiction writing at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and the New School in New York City .