On the hotel room balcony, Luke stood smoking cigarette after cigarette as I put the kids to bed. Their excitement at being in a hotel, at sharing a room with us, had them popping up like the moles in that arcade game where you hit ‘em with a mallet. I can’t deal with this, he told me as he closed the sliding glass door behind him. I watched him as he leaned against the railing, his hip pressing into the soft, splintering wood, his long torso leaning out into the crickety night, rain falling softly behind him, drops catching the light of the bare bulb every so often like falling stars against the black sky beyond.
Esme fell asleep on my arm, which began to prick with pins and needles after a while. She always slept with her mouth open like a goldfish reaching for air. Every time I tried to move my arm, she stirred. Eventually I gave up and lay there, staring at the stained popcorn ceiling. In sleep as in life, Henry fidgeted, which was the reason I’d never let him sleep in bed with us at home. It always meant getting kicked in my belly or my back, and being half awake all night. Now he made little noises as he tugged the stiff floral bedspread on the opposite bed. Was he imagining himself a superhero? Or were his dreams as mundane and frustrating as my own, wrestling with toothpaste tubes that never released their goo or continuously sharpening pencils which would never write?
I wrestled my arm free from Esme and went over to kiss Henry’s smooth forehead. He smelled of baby sweat, damp and sweet. I could smell my own body, too, as I leaned over, a deeper, pungent smell that comforted me in this strange environment. Luke, being what my parents call a real American– which is their way of saying an Annie Hall kind of WASP, is afraid of body odor. In fact, he is afraid of any odor. He generally strives for the neutral in his life – except in me. But maybe he strives to have it in me, too.
The hotel called itself a resort. It had an indoor pool housed in a room so over-bleached all the white was yellowing. There was a game room with checkers and a pinball machine, a bar that actually played Frank Sinatra (no irony) and only Frank Sinatra the whole time we were there, and a swing set with a slide in the back. It was Labor Day weekend, we had driven up from Philly to the Poconos on a whim, and this was the only room available for miles around. Our original plan had been to stay home Saturday and Monday, but spend Sunday at the Jersey shore with friends. At the last minute, Luke had suggested the mountains instead. I really preferred the beach, but I didn’t say so. I was afraid it would lead to yet another fight and ruin the weekend. Our fights were usually about how I always had to get my own way. “I just have to get out of the city, Liz,” he’d said, and I had agreed, tired of looking at my grimy basement filled with mismatched toys and socks. But we both knew what we really meant was, “We have to get away from each other.”
There were a million things left unsaid between us these days. We used to argue like all get-out. There were broken glasses, spilled cans of paint, even a vacuum cleaner down the stairs one time. I still didn’t have all the attachments. But we’d started to hold it together when the kids came. Luke was never a fan of direct expression; he preferred the silent treatment. And all my screaming just made me seem like the crazy one, so I started to pull it together, to hold it together, to hold it in. And when Luke reached out for me – when his father died, when he got layed off from the bank – I was too busy holding myself in to reach back.
In the morning, Henry captured a leaf bug on the balcony and brought it inside where it pinched him. Surprised, he dropped it and it floundered, panicked, around the synthetic brown/orange carpeting. It was still drizzling and fuzzy outside, but the sun was peeking through the clouds and beginning to burn off the blur. Henry ran back to the balcony to show Luke the drop of blood jeweled on his finger, and Luke let him lean against his leg awhile, the smoke from his cigarette mixing with the rising mist.
We had taken the kids to the pool as soon as we got to the place the day before. They drank in the chlorine like sugar and had emerged only for dinner, eyes red as potheads, drowsy and cranky from their efforts. Now, they wanted to go back. Once they got in, I knew we’d never get them out. “It looks like it’s clearing up,” I said. “Let’s hit that waterfall I was reading about last night. It should be really close by.”
Esme’s knees started to buckle as she braced for her oncoming tantrum. “No Mommy, noooo!”
“Come on, Liz,” said Luke in his timbred voice that meant he was going to win and he knew it. “They can go for a little while can’t they?” It was a cool sound, an unworried sound, such a contrast to my clenched one whenever we had a standoff, which lately was every day. He sounded like he was flicking a cigarette away and it turned my mind hot and red. The kids jumped on the beds, squealing.
Luke was the good parent now, but I knew what would happen. I’d spend the day inhaling chlorine as my hair frizzed while Luke watched TV in the room, smoked on the balcony, and made a quick appearance to dunk them in the pool just as I would be about to lose my mind refereeing yet another fight over whose turn it was to wear the goggles. Meanwhile, the world outside would become beautiful and sunny, a perfect day for a late summer hike, and I’d have to watch it fade into pink from inside the peeling, steamy room.
“It’s going to rain later,” I tried in a practical voice. “I think we should go now. You know how they get once they start anything. Anyway, we can hit the pool when we get back, before we leave.”
“Noooo!” yelled the kids from the beds.
“Come on, Liz. Why do you always have to be such a hardass?”
Now, the whine crept into my throat, clawed at it like a little troll that lived in my larynx and had made its way up to my vocal chords. It wanted out. “We drove all the way up here. We didn’t go to the beach. I want to get out of this crappy place and see some goddamned waterfalls!” I turned to the kids, trying to win them over. “Who wants to see waterfalls with Mommy?”
“No!” They yelled in unison, the traitors. “Swimming!!!!” But they were joyous, tossing their heads back, their hair flying in the air as they descended back to the mattress from the air, the rough sheets pooling at their feet. “Daddy! Daddy!” yelled Esme, “Tell Mommy we want to go swimming!”
“That’s right. Mommy doesn’t always have to get her way, right guys?” He looked at me as he said this.
“Yeah, yeah! Mommy always gets her way,” Esme cried delightedly, punctuating each jump with a single word, but Henry, though he kept jumping, gave me a sad look, his eyes tender. I pinched my mouth into a smile for him, raising my eyebrows to show it was okay. He smiled back an unsure smile that broke my heart. I turned to look at Luke hard. “Later,” he announced. “As soon as we get back from seeing the goddamn waterfalls.” He looked right back at me.
We struggled the kids into all manner of clothing and sandals and sunscreen. Packed a knapsack with water and granola bars and an extra pair of underwear for Esme, just in case. We were walking out the door, the kids rushing ahead, racing down the hallway when Luke said, “You know, I’m kind of tired. Maybe I’ll just stay back and rest. Then I can meet you down at the pool.” His hand went up to his hair, his nervous move. He knew he wasn’t going to get away with this one.
“This is supposed to be a family weekend. I don’t want to tramp around the Poconos alone with two kids. God, sometimes I feel like I’m already a single mother.”
“It was your idea to do this stupid hike,” he shot back.
“It was your idea to come up here!”
“Shhhh!!!” he scolded. We were standing in the orange carpeted hallway. It wasn’t even 8:30.
I said it again in a whisper, the kind of yell whisper whose peaks are tinged with throaty anger. “It was your fucking idea to come up here! I would have been very happy to go hang out with the Shermans and eat crabs and swim in the ocean. At least I would have had another adult to talk to.” I turned away from him then and ran after the kids who were arguing over who could press the elevator’s down button. I didn’t even look behind to see if he followed.
Luke and I met in college. He wore flannels and bobbed his head to Pearl Jam, pumping the keg and handing out red cups, rarely taking one himself By the time Nirvana would be wailing away in the background, and everyone else had either hooked up or had passed out on dirty couches, Luke would be ready to go take a really good look at the stars. He’d get a Mexican blanket. He’d take me by the hand. He’d say the names of the constellations: Pleadies, Cassiopea, Saggitarius. He’d point to them, he’d kiss me, the ground would be wet under the blanket and seep into the seat of my pants, go cold beneath my shoulder. I wouldn’t care, not even if there was a rock under my hip. He would kiss me, and I could see the stars.
Despite being called the Nature’s Wonder Resort, there was no breakfast included or available, so we grabbed food from the gas station across the street. In the car, the kids munched on their stale soft pretzels, and I sipped hot, bitter coffee that burned my tongue in a not unpleasant way, the steam fogging up my glasses. Luke had followed, grudgingly.
From his booster seat in back, Henry told a joke. “What does an elephant get when he sits on a marshmallow?” he asked, already giggling at the answer.
“What?” I turned around in my seat, smiling.
“A mushy tushy!” Henry announced, and he laughed so hard that pulpated pretzel fell in a wad from his mouth, into his hand. He held it up with a big grin as we passed dark green trees, a Girl Scout camp, a boat launch, posters announcing state game land. This got Esme going, and the three of us couldn’t stop laughing.
“Ewe!” I said finally, “Give that to me.”
I held out my hand for the sticky bread and knew I was his mother in an intimate, physical way. I plopped it into the plastic bag with the rest of the wrappers and straws and sugar packets from the gas station.
“Isn’t that funny, Daddy?” Henry demanded when he realized Luke was silent. But Luke was lost in his own world. “Daddy? Daddy!” There is no cover from children, and Luke was forced eventually to join us back in the car. “Daddy – a mushy tushy! Isn’t that funny?”
“Hmmmmm….” Luke nodded, his eyes still focused two car lengths ahead. I shook his shoulder, and he gradually turned to me, his face changing rapidly. It reminded me of this doll Esme had; the head spins around to show different faces, each with a different emotion. His face settled into an expression with flared nostrils on his aquiline nose, his ears cocked, making the wiry gray hairs at his temple stick out, as if he’d smelled something bad. His eyes locked into mine, I sucked in my breath at the hate I felt radiating from him in that moment. “What?” he finally asked, his voice like metal.
“Henry told a joke,” I managed, but I turned my eyes to the trees, the leaves, the trees, the leaves, the forest for the trees. I wanted to say something, say anything, but no words came to mind. I knew it was not his fault that our marriage was falling apart. It was my silence and my fear. I was trying to hold it together by not arguing back, to make each moment okay, but it was all rotten underneath, and I knew it.
Luke sucked in a breath, and that seemed to flip a switch. He became Dad again. His shoulder straightened, a playful smile came to his lips, his eyebrows raised inquisitively. “Tell it again, son,” he prodded in a warm voice as he turned around slightly in his seat, his hands still on the wheel. “I wasn’t paying attention.” Son – what a WASP-y thing to say. I could hear my mother in my ear – Oy! Americans! Everything on the surface.
As we trudged up the hill towards the stream, each of us with a child, and then switching children, we hardly had to talk to each other. I squeezed Esme’s fat little belly and her skinny bug legs wiggled around in glee and that was enough. The sun went in and out, changing the light dramatically as we made our way beneath the canopy of Eastern trees, blackberries still ripe on the vines just beyond the edges of the trail. The children ran up ahead as they began to hear the faint trickle of water. I smiled, and in my gentlest voice pointed out how lovely the mountains were, even as the summer was fading. Luke just made a guttural sound to indicate he’d heard me, but otherwise didn’t respond.
When we passed a side trail, Luke announced, “I think I’m going to go off this way for a bit. I want to be by myself for a while.”
“Really?” I couldn’t keep the anger out of my voice. I stood sweating and stunned, gnats buzzing in my ear. I swatted them away.
“What’s the problem, Liz?” Luke’s shoulders sank. He asked the question not, of course, because he wanted to hear what the problem was, but because this was the routine.
I felt my throat clench and the voice that came out sounded high pitched. “You’re going to leave me alone? With the kids? Now? Again?”
“You seriously can’t handle them for half an hour in the woods? Jesus, you’ll be fine. They’re not babies anymore. I’ve got a lot on my mind.” He turned to walk onto the green trail.
You always do, I thought as I started to turn my back, to walk off without explaining. I was the demanding, control-freak wife who had no sympathy for a man who’d lost his job and was just getting back on his feet at a new one with a salary reduction. I knew I was being an overgrown brat, but something in those woods, something about being in that run-down motel that my husband and kids seemed to enjoy so much, something about being away from the piles of dishes and laundry and bills and dust bunnies and birthday parties and deadlines at work and phone calls that Luke was going to be late again and issues with the day care and the kindergarten and passive aggressive phone calls from his mother and wet beds at 3 in the morning and crayon all over our newly painted dining room walls and a back turned away from me in our giant, lonely bed made me face him and call him back to me. “Luke!” I shouted.
“What?” His voice like a razor, he turned his face back to me, but his body still pointed up the adjoining hill, into the darkness where the trees swallowed the path.
“It’s not about the kids.” I tried to keep that horrible, whiny sound out of my voice. I took a breath. “It’s about me.” I looked at my feet, at the mud drying back into dirt and a fuzzy red and brown caterpillar making its slow way to a leaf just beyond the toes of my worn out sneakers. My face felt hot and my fingers were prickly. I tried to take another breath, but my chest felt blocked. When I looked back up, Luke had turned fully back to me. “I don’t want you to go. I want you to be with me. To be with me. Here, together.”
He looked wistfully up the trail, and I looked away. I said what I needed to say. I breathed in and out, sending oxygen to the places in my body that were gasping for it. I wiggled my fingers and turned to go toward the kids and the goddamn waterfall and the crowd of people surely photographing it and daring each other to dunk under it and eating hummus and peanut butter sandwiches on large flat rocks next to it. He was beside me suddenly, his long arm caged around my shoulder. He pulled me into him, and I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding as my narrow shoulders crushed into his ribs. He didn’t say anything and neither did I. We just walked in step down the trail.
Driving back to Philly on the highway, we passed over the state park. “Look down there – I think that’s where we were hiking,” I announced. The kids sucked on candy and stared out their windows. Luke nodded. Satisfied with what I could get out of him for the moment, I looked at the cars parked below, the incredible green of the trees. The other trees, the ones lining the highway seemed dusty, lighter, tired, closer to being ready to shed their leaves for fall, to rest.
“Take a look at this,” Luke said suddenly, handing me his iPhone. “I signed up for this thing; it’s a service. You pay 10 bucks a month and you can program in any album you want.” He touched the app and an array of choices popped up. You could look by artists or song or genre. I had a radio feature on my phone, but you could only choose one song on it – then you were stuck with whatever the invisible DJ in the device chose next. This, he explained, would allow you to choose whatever song, whenever you wanted to hear it.
“Neat!” I said, handing it back to him.
He put on The Steve Miller band. He liked to point out all the jazz influences. “Listen to that bass line,” he would normally say. But this time, he surprised me. I was half listening, half wondering what we were going to make for dinner, when he said, “When this song is over, do you want to pick something?“
“To listen to?” I turned toward him.
He smiled back at me, “Yeah, to listen to.” He said it gently, and I remembered him kissing me under the stars all those years ago. I took the phone back from him as Steve Miller finished wailing away. What did I want to hear? It had been the better part of a decade since my musical choices had ranged beyond “ohn Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” or the local alternative station as default aural wallpaper as I drove to my job as a social worker. Usually, I just listened to the news and numbed out.
Now, with the gadget in my hand, I felt electrified. The hairs on my arms perked up. My fingertips tingled as I scrolled through my choices. I glanced at Luke, who was responsibly looking 10 seconds down the road. The sky was again dreary. The answers were nowhere around me. And then it floated to me: Julianna Hatfield – that’s who I wanted to hear: her blunt lyrics, her raw voice, the bare guitar behind her. That was how I had felt in college. The yearning, the anticipation, the new connections to people, ideas, art. I had been truly myself then, interested in the world and eager to join it. I was unapologetically angry: at my parents, at God, at men who called to me on the street, at the idiots in Washington. I used to picture myself on a kibbutz, in the deserts of Arizona, swimming in the rocky blue grottos of the Baja Peninsula. And then I’d met Luke, and for a while, we were alive together, talking through the night and making love on dirty bedspreads or a couch in the hallway, it didn’t matter. Once we stayed up an entire night together, each reading a novel – and they weren’t even novels for class. I read Trainspotting, flipping back and forth to the Scottish-American glossary. I don’t remember what Luke read, but it didn’t matter. We lay head to toe on my long, twin, dorm room bed, our legs wrapped around each other. In the morning, we skipped class and listened to The Pixies.
Julianna crooned about about hating her sister through the speakers as the early evening sun fought its way through the clouds. I had forgotten how breathy she sounded, how like a grown baby. “God,” Luke looked over at me, smiling, “remember her?”
“Yeah, I know. Remember all those baby trends – the little barrettes, the pacifiers?”
“Oh my god, yeah,” He drew out the last word and looked off into the distance, but his hand found mine on the center console as the opening cords of the next song crashed and popped on our puny car speaker. “Sleater-Kinney,” Luke acknowledged the band. “You really liked these guys, didn’t you?” The kids were crashed out in back by now, and I checked briefly to make sure the heavy bass didn’t wake them. Esme drooled, openmouthed onto her car seat. Henry’s head hung down, his blond curls bobbing with the rhythm of the car and the occasional lift from the air conditioner.
The singer’s staccato lyrics rang through their angriest song, “Monster,” the anthem of all the fights I’d once had with my mother. I listened for a minute, letting the pure thrill of her anger wash through me.
“I was so angry with my mother then. With both my parents, I guess, but mostly with my mother. I always felt like I could never be good enough for her. I don’t know. I guess everyone feels that way about their parents.” I thought a minute as the beat pulsed through my whole body. It felt so freeing, just as it had back then. “It’s funny, you know?”
“What is?” he asked. And it felt so good to be asked. To feel that he was really listening. Lately, he always seemed to answer any of my deep thoughts with “Uh-huh,” before going off to make himself a sandwich.
“Well, I think they still have all of these expectations of me, and they are disappointed in me for not becoming a lawyer and marrying a good Jewish doctor. They’d never say that, of course, but it’s there. It’s funny because it just doesn’t make me angry the way it used to. I guess they’ve softened. I guess I have, too.”
Luke appeared to consider this. He’d always had such a mild relationship with his own parents. Not a very deep relationship, but a pleasant one. I wondered if he could understand. I squeezed his hand as the song ended. “When we get home,” he began as a new song started. I leaned in, wondering what he would propose for us. Maybe ordering a pizza and watching a Disney movie all together before bedtime. Maybe getting the kids to bed early so we could hang out together. “I gotta run into the office for a bit.”
I sat stunned, my hand still under his. I pulled it out and my chin jutted forward. I looked over, but all I saw was the long side of his face. His eyes were on the road. “What? Luke, it’s Sunday evening. And tomorrow is Labor Day. Can’t it at least wait until tomorrow? I thought we were having a family weekend.”
“Calm down,” he answered, ducking my question. “It’s no big deal. You can handle one night of bedtime.” I hated when he told me to calm down. I felt the pulse of “Monster” in my blood again. “You know I have to get my numbers up. I’m the new guy there. I need to get back at least to where I was.” There was just no arguing with that. I wanted to pull him out into the middle of the pulsing crowd and get him to jump, jump, jump! But he wasn’t that guy anymore and the crowd had long since gone to law school and gotten 401K plans. I stared out the window at the high sun, which hung like a yellow egg in the sky. Luke kept looking at the road, barely in the car at all.
Rachel Howe runs a tutoring program that brings Temple University students into North Philadelphia schools. She has taught writing at Rowan and Temple Universities as well as the Community College of Philadelphia. She also runs creative writing workshops for kids at local recreation centers and libraries. Her work has been published in Dark Matters, The Philadelphia City Paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and a variety of radio programs. Ms. Howe holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from Temple University. She lives in South Philadelphia with her three children.