When Night Falls
I wake up. I think Tessa is coughing again. Duncan stays asleep, deep under the covers, his back turned towards me. When I turn on the light in Tessaís room and look into her crib all I see is the bare plastic mattress. My mother washed the sheets and blankets, but I donít know where she put them.
The crib should be taken apart now.
I donít have the strength.
I canít bend over to reach Tessaís squeaky doll, with its polka-dot skirt and sewn-on bonnet, which has been shoved under the dresser all these weeks, along with the last book I read to her. During the story, Tessa daintily tilted her head towards me as if she were old enough to understand, "Binkie makes waves in her Binkie bath!"
The past few weeks have been busy. Duncan and I have not had time to talk. First, there was the blast of hospital staff shouting. Then, their final words deafened me. Only small sounds could reach me: someone chewing a date square as they hovered in our dining room, the swish of my motherís good pants as she rushed into the bathroom again, the hum of Duncanís parentís car as they drove us to our obligations. Our house is quiet now. I leave Tessaís room and push myself under the covers again. I think I finally sleep, although my eyes are still open and part of me still watches the clock flicking over its red numbers.
All the next day while I collect the grocery flyers and mail from the porch, listen to the background noise of TV newscasters talking about the referendum and assemble a fresh salad (we have been living on ham sandwiches and coffee), my thoughts tumble together. Maybe Iíll buy some tomato paste on sale. But, along with two bills, I open the stray cards that have come. One is lacy and white. I see the words: "Faith in Godís Embrace". The other pictures a pastel orange sunset. I only read the word "Destiny". The muddy sludge of seasickness circles up into my throat. I lay on the bed and only realize when I get up at dinnertime that the TV is still blaring and that the cards are crumpled in my hand.
My friend Anne phones after dinner, as she does every night, "Did you eat?"
"No, I donít think so."
"Did you get any fresh air?"
I tell her, "I went out on the porch".
"Good. Good," she says. "Call me if you want to talk."
She always says those exact words.
I do go to bed, but at three in the morning, I am alert and queasy. A cat keeps setting off the security light on the neighbourís porch, illuminating the hump of Duncanís back. Duncanís alarm button glows on his radio, set for 6:20, before the pool opens. Duncan likes to go swimming in the morning before work. now. He stays there--at the TV station--until after dark and he doesnít take the time to paint. He sleeps. When I used to sleep, Tessaís tiny mew would pull me out of bed right away. When I would sit in the chair in her room and nurse her, a whisper of cool darkness would swirl around us. I would have to wrap my hands more tightly around her shoulders and then sing one lullaby after another as I lay her in the crib. Sometimes I would just hum "Hm, hm hush," until her breathing slowed. How I must have seemed to her. The balm of my voice, my warm breast, the tucked blanket all made me a mother. Maybe.
Some people say a baby should sleep on its back; some say its stomach.
I donít want to know.
I tiptoe into the kitchen and make Duncan a peanut butter sandwich that I leave wrapped on the table. An orange, too. Through the dining room window, I see the black shapes of fir trees and, because our street is dark, I can see the stars. When will their light burn out? If we take an experience, polish it and examine it in all its glittering facets, then it will shine like a star too. If the stars shine, the earth must be turning, we must be alive, and we must know something.
During university, Anne lived with some other students, including Duncan, in an old house with lots of balconies and little rooms, each room still with its own wooden door. The living room and kitchen were high up in the house; the mountains could be seen from the windows. I avoided my little basement apartment a long bus ride away and sometimes stayed at the house instead. We all avoided our homework. Someone would shout from the coffee table in the living room, "Time for Whist!" and everyone would gather around. The top floor of the house was Duncanís domain, two small rooms, one a bedroom, the other a painting studio which Anne and I peeked into one day when he was at filmmaking class. The studio was surprisingly neat, with a few cameras on a shelf, paint tubes with the used ends crimped, canvasses stacked against the walls. His paintings were full of the big magenta, tangerine and lime green swirls of fields or trees. The people, if there were any, were small pale shapes huddled in a corner of the canvas.
From the first day I met him, I wanted Duncan so much that my inner thighs throbbed. If he could imprint his perspective on me, every light and every shadow would become meaningful to me. But I knew the balance of the household would be disrupted by my humiliating crush. I had to force myself not to stare at his shiny auburn hair whenever we were together. If I was wandering up to the kitchen to get coffee, and I passed Duncan on the stairs, I would have to look down at my feet. I could hardly wrench my body away from him; my breasts would point towards him. If only one of his hands, just one, just for a moment, would hold a breast. Would that be enough? I would lie on the edge of Anneís bed, stare at the ceiling in a restless fever and think of Duncan right above me, so unknown, busy creating his bright paintings.
One night, as I lay fitfully reading a book and trying not to bother Anne beside me, I heard a sudden scraping noise from Duncan's room. I tiptoed up Duncanís stairs, breathing hard with indecision, tapped on the door and opened it. He wasn't there. Again I heard scraping. Duncan had climbed out his window, up from his balcony onto the roof. He was sitting with his feet braced on the roof tiles so I crawled up and sat down beside him, even though I had on only a T-shirt and the grit hurt my legs.
Across the bay, the lights of the ski runs shone on the mountains. Below us the rows of houses were dark. Here, on the roof, all I had to do was...take his paint-stained hand. What stopped me?
"I guess we both couldnít sleep," I said nervously.
"Just taking a break."
Duncan squinted at me and started talking about a professor who gave out all "Aís" and was being investigated by the dean.
I couldnít listen to what he was saying. I put my hand on his arm.
"It is cold, isn't it?" Duncan said and then he stood up and helped me walk down the roof. I wanted his desire to be so strong that we would plunge through the open window together, that he would plunge into me right on the floor of his studio, that I would live here, with him, with him, with him. Duncan clambered in through the window, and when I followed, he said, "I'm tired. I think I'll go to bed. What time is your first class?"
"Nine-thirty," I said.
"See you guys in the morning." He switched off the studio light, went across the hall to his room and shut the door. I was left standing in a daze at the top of the stairs.
That was the night our relationship began. Six months later, Duncan and I were living together, in our small, leased house. Instead of finishing my degree, I did three graveyard shifts of data entry a week, at a bank. Duncan graduated and got a job as a TV production assistant. We worked. We went early to the pub with the television crew and late to the night-clubs with artists and photographers.
Almost every moment alone, we made love. Once Duncan said, "We are in ballroom dress, climbing the marble staircase of a mansion. Waltz music beckons from the open doorway. We ascend." In the fantasy, he was a gentleman. In our bed, I could smell the yeast and brine of flesh under the sheets. Duncan said, "We are dancing to a drumbeat. We jump around a firepit, our bare feet raising dust that shuts out the setting sun." The images would fill my mind, as my hands would slip on his sweaty shoulders. Duncan said, "We are on a city roof at night. We might fall." We couldnít stop. We grew frenzied, greedy, burning.
We didnít think.
We conceived Tessa.
I told Duncan, "Iím pregnant".
He said, "Oh."
At seven months of pregnancy, the placenta shifted to a dangerous place and I had to stay in bed so I worked through the novels left over from my nineteenth century literature course. When Duncan would come in, I would still be propped up in bed, surrounded by empty 7-up cans, stunned from all my reading. Expecting this, Duncan would bring home take-out food and then start painting. I could hear his brushstrokes on a watercolour propped in a corner of the living room. I could hear the sound of quick tapping on the computer keyboard. I would call out, "Are you working?" He would answer, "Grant application" or "Gallery proposal." I waited for his footsteps to come into the bedroom. What I heard was a shower that got longer and hotter every night.
The day after Tessa was born, Duncan said, "Her skin is so rosy".
He said, "Sheís beautiful."
He bought her a giant stuffed panda bear.
He bought her a glossy book of fairy tales.
I hear a radio and realize it is Duncanís alarm. I have been standing in front of the dining room window all night, looking but not seeing that the sky is already lightening to grey and that the trees are covered in mist. The stars are gone.
Tessa would wake up at dawn. As soon as I picked her up from her crib she would kick and stretch. I would peel off her damp sleeper and let her roll and flop on a towel in the middle of the floor for a few minutes. She made a wet, happy "ung-ga, ung-ga" sound. We were ready for the day.
I used to wonder if Tessa would be one of those hardy young women who go tree planting in the summer and rock climbing for fun.
I used to wonder who Tessa would become.
I didnít know.
Duncan rustles in our bedroom and then he walks quietly down the hall. I know he doesnít look in Tessaís bare room. He turns on the light in the kitchen and although he is startled when he sees me standing in the dining room, he only raises his eyebrows politely. Duncan is wearing jeans and is carrying his work shoes and his good clothes all of which he lays across the table without noticing the lunch I made. When he holds the coffee-pot under the faucet, it sounds as loud as an avalanche.
My legs feel numb and Iím cold. I clear my throat, "Do you want breakfast?"
"I don't know," he says, "Just a minute."
"How about some oatmeal?"
"No, thank you," Duncan says. He gets out the carton of milk.
In a few minutes Duncan will hop into the pool and stroke with purpose through the water. Itís hard to picture Duncan in the locker room, folding himself tidily into his pressed shirt, slicking his hair back, counting out change for a bottle of juice from the machine in the lobby. He will drive to the TV station and work competently and publicly all day.
Itís hard to imagine that he will chat with people there.
It canít be true.
Oh, it is.
"Do you know what time youíll be home tonight?" I ask.
"Itís too early to talk. Iíll try to call you later." He has already turned away to pick up his shoes and reach into the closet for a plastic bag, but I clearly hear every word Duncan is saying. His voice pervades the kitchen.
"Duncan..." I say.
"Listen, Duncan, you won't have to talk to anyone when you live here by yourself. Okay? And no one will disturb your routines at all."
We are like doomed stars, leached of all heat, already travelling on a path that was set long ago. There are many such stars, dying by the billions, barren, solitary, and unremarkable.
© 2000 Dierdre Maultsaid
Deirdre Maultsaid grew up and was educated in Vancouver, Canada. She has been published in the literary journals Zygote and Other Voices (Canada), a Rowan Books anthology (Canada) and on-line at Conspire (U.S). She lives in Southern Spain with her husband and children where she is revising her novel "The Cold Ashes of Her Shelter" and looking for a book publisher for this work. This is her second appearance in SCR
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