"I can't go back to that house, ever. I won't. No one can make me, and he's gone. I'm by myself. No surprises there." I didn't realize that I was speaking aloud, until someone behind me said, "Pardon me?" I turned in embarrassed surprise. "Oh, nothing," I replied, and hurried away.
It was a clear day, not a cloud in the sky, pleasantly warm, a small breeze nipping at the budding trees and flowers, at the dresses of little girls and their mothers, out to take the air. I felt a wave of longing for the simpler life I once shared with the man who was no longer here. There were no more tears, only a dry, pitiless anguish raking away at the coals of my heart, stripping it, breaking it anew each time. I walked to the park, and sat on a bench staring out at the river.
I wasn't old, barely forty, but we had been married for nineteen years, when he had left, suddenly without any warning. I woke up, yesterday it seems like, and he was there but absent. No one could wake him. My tears were like so much water off a duck's back. How would I live now, a mother of four, the youngest barely five years old, and still unable to understand that her daddy had gone for good? I had a job, and if things got bad I had a loving family to help me through, but what's a family without him? He had been my whole life so far. Every act was a celebration of our life together. Now, the party was over, the band had gone.
Someone sat beside me. I looked around vacantly. It was an old woman, hands shaking slightly, white head inclined toward the birds she was throwing breadcrumbs to. Could I ever be as content as she seemed? Would I ever not feel this slow, piercing pain squeezing me dry of laughter, of love, of hope? I watched her feed the birds, and knew I needed help. My plan for getting back into life was to go back to work and pull the tattered shreds of my existence close about my ears, hiding from everyone but myself the truth about how I felt. My kids still needed a mother, my parents still needed a daughter, and my siblings still needed a sister. So what if the one person I needed more than all of them was gone? I will survive.
I thought about those feelings I had had when we had first met. He was a very large man, and immensely tall, and as he helped my girlfriend change the tire on her car, I had wondered how to get him to ask me out. I knew I wasn't much to look at, well anyway that's what I thought, but I was educated. I was the only one of all my family to get past high school. Now here I was, a sophomore in college, and ignorant of the ways of the world.
He looked a lot older than me, but I wasn't a very good judge of age. He drove a station wagon, and he was neatly dressed. His clothes were worn, but clean and pressed. He looked like many of the neighbors I had left behind, honest men working hard to make their families comfortable. We must be meant for each other, I remember thinking. His name was Adam Maxwell, and he made me feel things I had never in all my life felt for another human being. I just came right out and said, "I'd like you to ask me out."
I remember he didn't bat an eye, just smiled a funny, secret smile, and asked me to go to the movies with him on Saturday night. We had a wonderful time, too, because he was such a perfect gentleman, although I could tell he was longing to be otherwise. I remember feeling tickled to discover that I could make a hulking great giant of a man tremble like a baby for want of me. I admit I teased a little, half hoping he would forget himself and give us both what I was asking for. But I also knew I could trust him, because for some reason, he really liked me. Me, Leah Rebecca Ellington. Not my beautiful and diminutive younger sister Elizabeth or my sexy older sister Naomi. He liked me, he wanted to be with me, he bought gifts for me.
He married me, after a long year of courting me on my father's front porch; in the back seat of his station wagon, where we did nothing more harmful than kiss each other senseless; at football games; at the movies; in church. There was nowhere that Adam felt was too sacred for him to tell me he loved me, and wanted to make love to me, and wanted me to have his babies. I felt treasured and loved more deeply than I had ever thought I could feel.
He taught me to love myself, too. I was not too scrawny for him, my hair was just the right shade of red, my eyes were a beautiful green, my skin was a warm honey. I never doubted that he meant every word he said, every compliment he ever paid me. I celebrated life with him. Each of our four babies was born to grand feasts and family reunions; our wedding anniversaries were happy affairs that we celebrated over an entire week; birthdays were always a reason to play and sing and make ourselves merry. Because we worked so hard to be happy, we even enjoyed all the hard times we weathered, like the time he was let go from his job, and I was a new mother with a very sick infant in hospital. Or the fifteen months which followed when we ate a lot of bread and drank a lot of water, and never told our families our troubles, because they had troubles enough of their own.
I was smiling and unaware of it. It must have caught the old lady's attention, for she suddenly piped up,
"It's a lovely day, isn't it?"
I smiled back, not wanting to talk, yet needing to. "Yes, beautiful." I felt awkward, not knowing what else to say. She must have sensed my confusion.
"Don't mind me, dear. You seemed a bit lonely, earlier on. I guess you must be feeling better." She smiled encouragingly, and I realized she was offering herself as a patient listener to whatever burden I cared to offload on her.
"Thank you, I do feel better," I heard myself say, and knew, in surprise, that I did.
"It always helps to think things through," she continued. "When I was your age, I used to come here often to think things through. I wasn't very popular with women, and I wasn't very comfortable with men. But a clear day and the sight of the river take my mind in other directions when I'm depressed."
How should I answer this strange old soul, who wanted to comfort me, or to be nosy, or both? I could find nothing to say, so I just smiled at her. Presently, I rose to leave.
"Goodbye dear," she said. "You should smile more."
"Goodbye. And thank you," I replied. I wasn't sure what exactly I was thanking her for, but she had pointed out to me that I was feeling better. At home that night, I cast my mind over our short conversation, and suddenly realized that what had lifted my mood was the memories I had been stirring up. As long as I kept the memories alive in my heart, in my mind, Adam would always be with me. A sudden rush of tears overwhelmed me, and I was thankful that I could cry again.
"Adam, it's time," I said in a rush, breathing deeply to relieve the pain. My husband looked at me and jumped off the kitchen stool.
"Okay, now. Lee, remember to breathe. I'll get the bags." He had scurried away before I could tell him he was going the wrong way. We laughed about the huge black-and-blue mark he wore for a few days after his first son, Todd Aaron Maxwell, came shrieking into the world. That boy was the loudest baby I have ever heard, except at night, when for some reason, he never cried. I would know he was awake because he would squirm, kick, and fret. Our bed was small enough that if a feather touched it I would be awake.
Todd always made me laugh. No matter how horrible the thing he had just done, I usually had to fight to keep from laughing aloud in front of him. It was his way of standing there, caught red-handed, with a puzzled look on his face, as if to say, "Now how did I get caught?" Or his guilt-ridden face, coupled with the most innocent of tones. Or that lower lip drooping lower and lower as he clearly envisioned in his little head the severe punishment he was about to receive. He was always a thinker, was Todd, and as the family grew, he became increasingly introverted, until by the time Chloe was born, he was practically a twelve-year-old recluse.
I was aware that my child had always withheld a part of himself from all of us, and I could not understand why. I realized as I prepared dinner, that I have always been a little bit hurt by that. Why would he shut out his own mother? What was he hiding? He was only seventeen, when he first decided he was going away to college, although the local college was highly rated nationally. I knew he wanted to get away. That was how I had felt, too, only I had a real reason. Nobody really cared whether I went or stayed. Nobody missed me when I was away. I was so tired of being ignored, taken for granted, teased and even insulted by my sisters, while my parents did nothing, that I chose to go as far away from home as I could.
I remember brandishing my independent status before my sisters' envious eyes, and I remember taunting them that their beauty got them babies before they were married, for boys who cared nothing for them. I remember laughing in their faces as I told them about Adam. I remember how their jaws dropped in shock when I brought my handsome lover home for the first time. How could I, the invisible child, the tall, skinny one, with no hips, no breasts, no backside, have managed to get hold of such a hunk? I remember how they each tried to steal him away from me, and how each time he would find me where I was hiding and show me in his kisses, and tell me with his eyes and his voice that I was the only girl he wanted to kiss, to hug, to nibble on, to be with, for the rest of his life.
My breath caught in my throat. The rest of his life. My beloved was gone, for the rest of my life. My children were all gathered round me when I opened my eyes next.
"What happened?" I asked.
"You passed out, Mom," said my second child, David. His face was concerned and a little frightened. I hastened to reassure them all that I was fine, just a little tired. Nevertheless, I was banned from the kitchen for the rest of the evening. Ruth, my youngest, came to sit on my knee, and she looked into my face with sad eyes. She studied each feature, as though she were committing them to memory. Finally, she laid her head on my breast and fell asleep.
I realized with a pang of guilt that I had completely ignored this poor child for almost a week. Adam's funeral had been a week ago. He had been gone for almost a month.... I had not exchanged loving words with my baby for so long, I felt like I was out of practice. I sat next to her at dinner, giving my place to Todd. No one sat in Adam's seat. Afterwards, as the other children cleaned up, I gave her a bubble bath, brushed her short red hair, read her a story, repeated her favorite poem with her, said prayers with her and tucked her in with a goodnight kiss.
"Mommy, what happened to Daddy?" Ruth asked as I reached the door. I knew she wanted to hear that he died in his sleep, that he felt no pain. I said the words mechanically, my heart falling like a stone as each word came out. She sat up in bed, stared at me, big tears in her green eyes, and wondered, "Why?" I went to sit beside her on the bed, and together we cried our eyes dry, and then she fell asleep. I laid her gently back on the pillows, and silently left the room.
The house was quiet now, and the only one who still seemed to be about was Todd. Chloe was reading in her room, David was lying on his bed staring at the ceiling. Only Todd remained in the kitchen, putting things away, and clearly waiting for me.
"Mom, I got accepted by the college I want to go to." Todd stopped abruptly, as though unsure of my response. I knew he wanted to leave, and I guess I couldn't blame him. But didn't he see that I needed him now more than ever? If he left, there wouldn't be a man in the house! I struggled with my fear and anger, and finally said,
"I know you want to go away to college, dear boy, but couldn't you go to school here for awhile, and then transfer?"
I saw him struggle with himself, saw the pain and frustration, as well as the fear and hurt, slide over his features before he schooled them into giving nothing more away. "This college doesn't offer the specialty area I'm interested in. I'd be wasting my time to go there. You said so yourself, you and Dad..." His voice trailed off, and he looked away hastily, guiltily. "Sorry," he mumbled, hoping I did not see the tears he was trying to hide. My heart hurt for my firstborn, and I could think of nothing to say or do to make him feel better. He finished putting the pots and pans away, and turned again to face me.
"I've been offered a full scholarship. I have the letter upstairs." His voice was dead, and a part of me thought how cruel life is to bring us joyful news that we could not celebrate. I realized as he returned with the letter from the college that I could not stand in his way. I loved him more than he knew, and though I didn't understand him, I'd stand by him, as his father would have done, as he would have wanted me to. I promised myself to be ready for the day when he would trust me enough to unburden himself, and I prayed for the wisdom to help him when he did.
"When are you leaving?" I asked, bowing to the inevitable.
"Not before the end of summer. I want to work a little bit, make some pocket money, and help you..." His voice died away again.
I awoke with a start. I was sweating, though the fan was on high. I had been dreaming again. Oh, Adam, Adam, what did we miss? How could we not know you were ill? The dream filled my head again, and I sprang from the bed. Maybe a cup of hot cocoa would help. In the kitchen, I tried to dispel the image of my late husband, but his face was on the refrigerator, on the windowsill, in the hot liquid I was sipping. I took it back with me to my bed, now cold, rumpled, and lonely. I lay back against the pillows, and I am back on the lawn facing my dormitory in college. Adam's head is in my lap, his eyes laughing at something I said. He pulls me down for a quick kiss. I can still feel the passion that he is barely able to control. Now, we are in the hotel room. It is our wedding night. We have been sent off to consummate our marriage by a laughing, happy crowd of well wishers.
The sky is full of stars, and Adam sits with me next to the window looking out at them. We talk of counting them, and laughingly try, then lapse into silence before the beauty of the night. Then he touches my lips with trembling fingers, and turns my face to his.
"I love you, Mrs. Maxwell," he whispers. "I love you." Our first kiss in private, since this day began. A long, slow, building kiss, rousing emotions we had been so careful to keep in check for a whole year. I let him undress me, and he watches my face as I undress him. We stand facing each other naked, embarrassed, and exhilarated. He sees what I look like without the screen of clothing. I wonder what he thinks of my bony thighs, my flat chest, and my tiny waist. I am lost in the beauty of his tall, hard body. He reaches for me, and we fall into each other's arms.
"I love you, Mrs. Maxwell," he says again. "For the rest of my life. Only you."
... My tears are flowing freely now, and I cannot stop them. We made love for the first time by moonlight. He was gentle with me, and I responded to every lead he gave. I never knew I could feel the physical pleasure I had every time we made love. My skin was on fire for days afterwards, every time he touched me, or looked at me. I felt that fire again, only this time I had no way to quench it. My lover was gone.
"Mom?" Todd's voice startled me. He came and sat on the edge of my bed, and held me until I could speak. "If you really want me to, I'll stay until you feel better," he said, when I blew my nose. I looked at my eldest son, and for the first time noticed how remarkably like his father he was -- in build, in features, in personality. For a moment, he was Adam.
"Oh, dear boy, I want you to stay with me, but I know you must go. I would never do anything to stop you from advancing. I shall miss you, dear boy, but I shall never stop loving you. Now off you go to bed. I'll be alright." I forced a hearty tone into my voice, and followed him back to his room.
"Goodnight, Mom," he said, and kissed me on the cheek.
I knew that sleep was gone now, so I fetched a book from the shelf and settled against the pillows to read. Maybe I could distract myself with a good book. I did not know when I fell asleep again. The smell of bacon and eggs woke me up. I swung my legs groggily over the side of the bed, and stumbled into the kitchen. Naomi was standing over the stove, an apron on, counting pancakes.
"What are you doing?" I asked hoarsely.
"What does it look like? I'm making breakfast." She turned to look at me and raised her eyebrows. "You look a fright. Didn't sleep much last night, did you?" She walked over to where I had sat down and said, "Why don't you come for a visit? You really shouldn't be on your own just now, Leah!"
"Who'd look after my children?"
"You know Elizabeth would be happy to come and stay for a few weeks. Look at yourself. You're back to being skin and bones again. You're wasting away, Leah. Adam wouldn't have wanted that." She knew that if she called upon Adam as her authority I would not argue. Naomi had been the first to make her peace with me, right after the wedding, and we now accepted each other's quirky ways. Elizabeth had held out longer, and even now, though she was clearly devoted to her nieces and nephews, she was cautious in her relations with me.
I was really tempted to accept Naomi's invitation. She lived on a farm with her husband and children, and would be glad for my company. But I couldn't leave Ruth alone just yet. It was too soon, and she was not ready to be on her own without her mother. I opened my mouth to say all this to Naomi, when Ruth walked in and greeted her aunt happily.
"Auntie Nomi, Auntie Nomi, when did you come?" She opened her arms and was gathered into my sister's comforting embrace.
"Hello, poppet. I came this morning. Mommy must have forgotten to tell you." She kissed her niece soundly, and put her down. "Ready for breakfast?"
Breakfast was the happiest it had been in a month, with laughter at the table, and lots of food, and a relaxed feeling. The pain of the night seemed far away for me, and I watched my children as they responded to Naomi's hearty good sense. They did not flinch when she said,
"Would you children object if your mother came, by herself, to spend a little time in the country with me? She's worried about you, and doesn't want to come."
My children all looked at each other, then, as if they had previously discussed and chosen him to speak, Todd said, "I don't think we'd mind too much, right guys?"
The others nodded their heads vigorously. I looked at Ruth. "What about you, baby? Do you mind if Mommy goes without you?"
Ruth thought for a minute. "Who's going to stay with us?"
"Auntie Lisa," was Naomi's quick reply.
"Okay, Mommy. How long are you going away for?"
"Only a little while, maybe two weeks," I said, before Naomi could take me away for a month. And before I knew it, I was in the country, sitting by the river, watching the fishermen and pleasure seekers glide by.
Adam had loved being in and around water. If we had had money, he would have bought a boat. I could not swim, and he always laughed at me when we went to the beach. I usually did no more than wade, up to my knees, sometimes up to my waist, never further than where my feet could touch ground. If I could not walk, I was in too deep. He would swim around me and make believe he was going to dunk me. I would squeal like a stuck pig, and "run" back to the safety of the shore. More than once he caught me, slid his body up mine, and stole a kiss. Sometimes we'd stay locked together, wet bodies hardening with passion, and molded together revealingly, until he'd break the spell with a whispered promise: "Later!"