*Image: “So Close” by Gina Williams, Photograph, 2013
By Marie Curran
The beauty catches in my throat as we pull onto the road to Asher and Moira’s farm, my husband beside me and our daughter in the backseat. It’s thirty minutes from our home in town, but we have not visited in months. Asher’s zinnias and onions, ripening pumpkins, and Moira’s pecking hens in a meadow of goldenrod meet us on the narrow dirt road up to the old farmhouse. I comment on the beauty, but Toby is silent and seems to merely log away my words. I imagine he has little hanging files in his brain: ‘For Revenge’ or ‘For Justification’ or ‘To Precede Make-Up Sex.’
I used to have my own land, a quaint and crumbling farmhouse and vegetable business close to here. When Toby married me, I told him my property was part of the deal.
But that ended five years ago. After the icy ambulance ride and emergency caesarian section, six weeks early, after Penelope’s colicky cries and my postpartum depression, and after the discovery of lead paint all over the walls and in the plumbing. We sold the place and decided I would be a stay-at-home mom.
Penelope, hearing the word ‘throat,’ makes exaggerated choking noises and bursts into giggles. Before I pull the keys out of the ignition, Penelope unbuckles herself from her complicated harness and is out, squealing with Asher and Moira’s girl, Bess, and chasing their tabby mouser through the remains of the potato patch. The earth compacts under their pink shoes.
“Have we decided who’s on kid duty?” Toby says, his finger poised over the seatbelt buckle. I’m already halfway out of the car.
“I’m not sure we need to do that.”
“I’d really feel more comfortable if—”
“They’re not babies. We’re all watching them.”
“What if I’m on duty the first half? Or we could split it with Moira and Asher. Except that I wouldn’t want Asher on kid duty alone. So maybe we better keep this between the two of us.
I sigh, “Sure, whatever,” and Toby clicks the lock button.
Asher is leaning against a tree near, but not quite with, the other adults on the lawn. He’s not holding a glass, but wears what Toby calls his ‘dog face.’ Wordless, with a kind of lolling slackness. He is drunk, which is not good, even if it is birthday.
Toby squeezes my elbow. He can tell too, and a perverse joy surges in me. It might be the drama that accompanies relapse, or how my husband and I are for once seeing with the same eyes, or that he’s touching my bare skin in the open air. I slip my hand into his. He lets go promptly, speeds over to the cheese board set up on the front porch.
When I offer up my slaw to Moira, she grins, clutching her rough clay mug. It is twin to the one I have brought—and always bring to her house—except in color and subtle depressions, from that ceramics class we took together when we were both twenty-eight and pregnant. I pat my purse, gently, checking that my own mug is there.
“It looks great out here,” I say.
Moira beams, says, “Hasn’t Asher done well? Did you see the pumpkin patch? Isn’t it lovely? ”
All this past summer, Moira, has come to my house for lunch on Fridays, and our daughters play in the yard. Lately, she has been telling me how bad Asher is, and that she’s close to leaving him.
In her laments, she has often used the word “husband,” like Asher isn’t my old friend. Like she’s forgotten how I knew him first, as a farmer, how I set them up and watched their romance unfold. Once, I mentioned that Toby was becoming predictable, routine-oriented in a way that didn’t quite seem normal, and she rolled her eyes. Because at least he’s stable, with a lucrative career and the ability to vacuum or separate laundry or change the oil without being asked. He bakes exactly one egg casserole each Sunday and often sweeps the garage and has never overdrafted our account or driven a car into a ditch piss drunk.
Last week she told me she was really going to do it. “So do it!” I’d snapped, surprising even myself. I tried to contact her after the weekend, and then a few days after that, but silence. And then this morning she called me to cancel on our lunch and invite us out to Asher’s last-minute party. Her voice felt tight and censored over the phone. I agreed to come, and she seemed to relax. But Toby doesn’t like spontaneous plans after work, especially when they involve a change of clothing. The disruption can throw him off balance for days. All afternoon I was on edge.
Now, Moira raises her mug in cheers and I see red wine. “Tonight, we drink,” she says, smiling wider.
Oh, my relief, how visceral it is. I just want to let go. The happy shrug of my shoulders, the audible sigh, the ease in which I put down the bowl of cabbage and dig the mug from my purse, blow out the dust, and as I meet Moira’s gaze, lift it up to the level of our hearts. The soul mates make contact, and their clinking is a joyful sound.
Two hours pass. It’s a pleasant time, adults relaxing in the country, little girls having their adventures.
Inside there is new wine, and my cup is empty. Asher is gone. His lawn chair in the circle around our meager fire still looks indented, as if straining under a great weight. But Asher is so thin, this summer more than others. Some of the chair’s plastic tubing has snapped, giving it a disheveled fringe of green and yellow.
Outside the circle, in the dappled glow of the rising super moon, Moira stands, one hand resting on the back of a chair taken from their kitchen, a straight-backed wooden chair with a velvet cushion. She isn’t looking for Asher—she is beyond that now, I suppose—but talking, laughing, sipping often from her mug.
Moira jerks when the sweet shrills of our children’s voices rip through the air. Over by the hoop house, in the sandbox, there is a brief squabble about a yellow bucket. But a childless friend waves for us to stay put and sets off over to them. I smile in gratitude. Moira returns to her conversation. She looks beautiful.
Behind Moira, a card table holds Asher’s cake, the ‘3’ candle upright, the ‘8’ sinking into frosting. Beyond that my gaze takes in the leaning woodshed, a hill of collapsed scooters and tricycles, bikes and other rusting garage sale toys, and a chainsaw, tilting on a log.
In the kitchen the cork lies broken and stained next to the half-empty green bottle. A few gnats flit about and I shoo them away, pour myself more wine. An open bucket of food scraps stinks up the counter.
Out front, someone nails a punchline and the small crowd roars. I hear something behind the house, and move towards the noise. I see through a window that Asher is working on the back porch. The light is dim and I bring him a lantern. He is processing onions, at his own party. For a minute I watch him. These bulbs are wet and tender, weeks too young for the tunics they need to survive fall and winter in a root cellar or a pantry’s dark bottom cupboard. Their stalks still a shocking green, yet also crisp and hardening. Far too old to be scallions or spring onions. Market is in the morning, the tomatoes are unripe, and they need money now.
“You shouldn’t be drinking,” I say, as I bend down for an armful of muddy onions. I think of our large backyard garden. Toby built me beautiful raised beds and a deer fence of birch and wire, and I taught him about gardening: a truce when we moved into town. I pick over the plants each day when I am home alone with Penelope.
“You shouldn’t be snooping,” Asher says warmly, and he doesn’t seem drunk, not like he did earlier in the night. There is a lot of wine in his mason jar.
He yields a knife that was once very sharp. I remember it was given to them by an older acquaintance who is now dead, when Asher and Moira bought their land. She had unwrapped and removed it from its embroidered leather sleeve while he held the baby, and as he beamed I saw her suppress a shudder, the exposed blade resting across her upturned palms.
In those days there were more trees around the house, and they wracked the windows as the late spring rainstorm descended. I sat in the back of their unfinished parlor nursing infant Penelope to sleep, again and again, both of us startling every time branch met glass.
With each uneven hack, more flowering heads and their green necks shoot across the table. What is left oozes pungent slime. I shake my head. “This is silly,” I say, feeling my buzz.
“Needs to be done.”
And so I nudge Asher over to the sink side of his processing station, and grab the knife. He doesn’t flinch from my hand on his spine. I dump my onions in the sink, line up the wounded bulbs again, and cut them clean. He stares though the window into the house as I place the finished product in the big red ice chest that rests beside me on the porch’s slatted floor.
Asher is an easy drunk, until he’s not, and after a time he can’t keep up with me. I take a long drink of my wine while I wait for him and look at his slender hands, the skin rich with pigment and creases brimming dirt. It’s surprising how the porous cup against my lips reminds me of kissing his knuckles, which I have never done, which I have not thought about doing for several years. There was a season when this yearning consumed me and it all rode on silly things, like, say, waiting to be the last one still awake with him around a campfire. I never was. But here I am now, wondering what exactly I’m doing.
Toby is not wondering where I am. I know this in a deep place because, after eight years of marriage, what a spouse understands best is how she is forgotten.
Processing onions with Asher is enjoyable—almost religiously satisfying. The wrongs of the world lose their edge. There’s the wet onions’ shine, and then the way I brush the harvest’s leavings off the table to make room for what’s arriving, the acoustics of hollow stems hitting the wood. Cycles ending and beginning. Some pieces fall four feet through floorboards to the moist earth below, where a rabbit might find them later, a spicy midnight snack. Asher pulls the last bunch from the basket. I don’t want it to be over.
“You’re perfect for this,” he says.
“What if you came out here and worked for me, Lara, when Penelope starts kindergarten? I need a business partner,”
“Moira,” I say, a reflex.
His hands lazy in the filling sink, until they cease scrubbing. The onions plug up the basin and he does not turn off the water. I watch the steady tap, willing him to be better. And also willing us to do something crazy. Asher’s breathing is labored. After a time, he looks hard at me.
A small noise escapes my mouth, but I don’t know if I’ve in- or exhaled or neither. For a moment the world takes on a radiance, full of possibility. The sun has been gone for a long time now, giving yielding the stage to the super moon, which Asher and I can’t see from where we stand. Our bodies are nearer than they’ve ever been.
In the distance, I can hear Toby’s muffled voice and I imagine he’s explaining to our friends that it’s called a perigee. That this month’s super moon isn’t a real perigee because it won’t be its closest to the earth until late tomorrow morning, hours after the sun has once again robbed it of its brilliance. I dart out my hand, hammer down the faucet.
“She must be furious,” I reply.
Asher smiles. This is both what I mean and yet not what I want to say. But then his stubbled lips widen and there’s laughter and I can smell all the things Moira has been smelling for years, and I hate it.
A rustling over the first felled leaves. I drop the knife; it hits the ground. When I stoop to pick it up, I see Moira’s face flash from relief—Asher is not passed out somewhere in the house or garden—to what isn’t quite betrayal or jealousy but more of a surprise with delicate hints of both, like a finish on a wine, the accents of coffee beans.
“I was just helping him process,” I blurt out. My tongue is laden with booze.
Moira glares at Asher.
“The onions,” I mumble.
“Hey baby,” Asher slobbers in a bad mock Southern drawl.
“Don’t you want us to light your candles and sing to you?” Moira glances at me while talking to him. He is failing by the second: giggling, farting, and then giggling harder.
“Baby, do I need cheering on because I’m one year closer to being dead?”
“Just please, let’s get this cake thing over,” Moira says.
“Easy for you to say, youngin’,” Asher scoffs. He turns his body towards mine, gives me a rough rub on the shoulder, and practically shouts, “You too!”
Youngin’ sounds wet and soiled in Asher’s mouth. I wiggle from his touch and look to Moira, contorting my face in a way that says, yes, I know this is bad. That says, I could not leave him alone. Not with the knife, not with his harvest, not with himself. Moira drops her shoulders, and I notice shadows around her eyes, and we are all quite drunk.
Then, more patiently, she croons, “Come on, Asher, hurry up. I didn’t bake you a German chocolate cake from scratch to feed to the raccoons. And the super moon is out!”
Back at the circle, the false perigee really is impressive. Toby neither greets me nor looks suspicious. Our daughter is close by, narrating a game of princess-warrior-unicorn with Bess.
Everyone pretends to ignore Asher’s slovenliness. I see some pity or exasperation in a few of our friends’ glances at Moira. But nobody else looks at Asher. He’s back in his lawn chair with his ass at the edge, his wide angular shoulders swaying. Moira wants him over by the cake and he trips twice during the ten-foot walk. The whisper yelling begins. We all keep sipping like college students on wine in mugs and mason jars, on cheap beer in cans, on whiskey in water tumblers,.
It’s not until Asher is sunk back into his lawn chair with a sheepish smile like he’s shit his pants and Moira is wobbling over with the cake in her hands that I realize Penelope is gone.
“Where are the kids?”
Moira pauses, looks around. “Oh,” she stammers. It’s as if the questions surprises her, and then built into her sudden worry is the embarrassment of being the drunken mother of a young child. We both look to Toby.
Another friend answers, “They were just here, right?”
Toby shrugs. “Weren’t you on duty?” he asks me, and there’s a quality about the easy bunch and release of his shoulders that makes me want to destroy him. The rage rushes into me.
“God, Toby. It’s dark out.” I’m trying to find a way to accuse him.
“You were on duty, Lara, we agreed,” he lectures me as I look towards the hoop house, the porch, the black fields.
I want to kick him in the face. Instead, I start walking to the garden and look back at him to yell, “What the fuck kind of parenting is that? Are you drunk?”
The smug way Toby shakes his head no makes me know he’s telling the truth. Then I hear Penelope scream. Her voice is coming from the direction of the road.
I run and run and run, I need my little baby in my arms, safe, and if I can’t have that I’m leaving Toby, I’ll leave him. Dirt turns to gravel, and the road is blank. No cars, no bodies. “I’m here!” I scream.
Behind me, noise. I’ve passed them somehow. Moira is ten feet back, holding Penelope in the trellised berries. At first I can’t move. My daughter calls for me, but I’m stuck working down the wine, remembering how to breathe. When I take the first step, Toby is already there. He scoops her up, and Moira lifts her own daughter who has been weeping quietly with fear, tugging her mother’s skirt.
Toby shines the light from his phone on our child’s face. I register there is some blood, her hand over her left eye, and sandwiched in between a dried and spindling thorny branch dangling with dead tiny beginnings of blackberries. I look under her hand. The cut doesn’t look that bad.
But Toby has a thing about eyeballs. He tells me to get the car. I do as he says, though a great calm has put its foot smack in the middle of my madness. Our daughter—my life—is not dead or dying, not even close. I’m not worried. This is what sometimes happens to children in the country, small risks sometimes end in a little blood, and this lesson may be as important as gathering acorns and earthworms and plucking ripe fruit from vines. As I jog to my purse and jostle it for the keys, Toby says something about Penelope losing her sight, which is absurd. What a strange evening. I start the car. Their faces, so close together in the flora, are the picture in my mind and then the image in the headlights. I realize for the first time, in anguish, that my husband and child look just alike.
In the ER it’s what I guessed: a cut, a week with a patch, some drops, no long-term damage expected. Penelope has calmed down with pain meds. I’ve been chugging what tastes like toilet water in a collapsing waxy paper cup and munching vending machine almonds to restore my faculties. Asher and Moira’s drama is a dim memory, an episode separate from my life and concerns. Toby is rattled, though.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” I tell him while rubbing his back. He’s tense, and ignores me. “I should’ve been watching her. I shouldn’t have left the fire for so long.”
“Did I ever tell you about my friend with the glass eye?”
“Toby,” I say, motioning to Penelope, who is beside us in her hospital bed, fielding the nurse’s questions about starting kindergarten.
“He snagged it on a rose bush. Ripped the whole ball out of the socket.”
“Don’t think about that. It was a freak accident. She’s fine.”
“She might have not been fine,” he says.
“And I shouldn’t have exploded like that. You’re right, we made a plan.”
“The image of the empty socket, I can just imagine.”
Then Toby gags. I put my head in my hands.
“Is he—?” says the nurse. I mutter that everything is fine.
Penelope starts whining. The problem is that she didn’t get cake and ice cream. This escalates into wailing, “I want it! I need it!”
The nurse makes the predictable, but kind, remark about how tantrums are a sign things are getting back to normal. I try to smile.
But Toby cuts in, “No you don’t. Remember, you don’t like German chocolate cake?”
“Cake,” she sniffles, pausing to consider his claim. “Cay-ay-ayyyye”—the crying continues—”aaaayyyyyyyyyke.”
I run my fingers through her hair and soothe. “I know, sweet girl, let’s get you some tomorrow. It’ll be your special treat after lunch.”
She looks at Toby, then to me, and says, “But I need it to be germing chocolate cake.”
I nod and Toby shakes his head. “No, no, no Penelope, I’m telling you, you won’t like it.” His voice is firm and grows louder against Penelope’s whimpers. “And then you’re going to cry because you want some other cake. German chocolate is way too bitter for you.”
“No I need germing!”
“Sweetie, we can try it.”
“This is a mistake, Lara. This is why she’s manipulative. Don’t give in.”
“Mommy, I don’t like Daddy!”
“Every tantrum we don’t deal with she’s learning that she’s in control. We can’t let up our vigilance, Lara. We must follow through every single time.”
“Oh please Toby, she had such a scare.”
“Yeah and who’s to blame for that scare? You were on duty. And who’s going to give in with the cake? Are you seeing any patterns yet? Are you going to buy her ice cream when she fails her classes, or drugs when she loses her first job?”
“I want,” Penelope heaves, sucking in breath, “GERM ING,” and then breaks into a coughing fit which seems to make her eye hurt all over again. She’s unhinged. Toby is listing the reasons my disciplinary philosophy is wrong all the way down to my body language. I’m saying something about buying two kinds of cakes, German chocolate and a safe flavor, when I notice the nurse, sitting at the computer, staring at us.
What her face communicates: He’s insane. I see Toby catch her eye, too.
“I forbid German chocolate cake,” Toby has declared, the last word.
I blink back at the nurse, and then I feel like my skin is sinking into my bones.
“Hey,” she says, popping up, “I think this little angel needs her beauty sleep tonight, okay? So we need to keep nice and calm so that the doctor can a take one more good look at that eye and you can all go home, yeah?”
Early in the morning. Penelope crawls into bed with us. Toby doesn’t stir while our daughter grunts and whinnies.
“I want germing cake.” Penelope pulls the covers up to her shoulders, and around her eye patch the skin doesn’t look too bad. “I need it to feel better,” she adds, yawning.
I whisper, “Later, soon,” and stroke her cheek until she sleeps. The two of them are peaceful, and Toby, without waking, snuggles into Penelope’s tiny body. I attempt to join my family in slumber. When I can’t, I rise and dress, brew a pot of coffee, feed the cat, and try to finish an overdue novel. But I quit the book, lost in thought about what if my morning routine again involved lacing up work boots, unlatching the chicken coop and scattering feed, checking on the pole beans that have overnight grown from delicate slivers to fat starchy fingers.
At nine the supermarket bakery is open, and I set out on bicycle to buy Penelope a piece of cake.
In the grocery store I cross my arms over my chest, shivering in the violent air conditioning as I examine the plastic clamshells. There is no German chocolate. There is nothing that looks appetizing. One fudgy wedge catches my eye. The label and its dozens of laboratory ingredients repel me. I can make a cake, chocolate with some coconut flakes on top, and call it good. Everyone will be happy.
As I mount my bicycle, the urge for German chocolate becomes stronger. I will bring some home.
The town’s other bakery is too far for biking. Only a few blocks out of the way there is the farmers market, full of entrepreneurial bakers selling their goods in compostable boxes with warning stickers, This was made in a home kitchen. Usually I avoid the scene, but today I take a left instead of the right that would lead me back home. The market is a rainbow of vegetables and fruits, and of strong women and men standing behind booths in tatty clothing, with soil under their fingernails, with muscles and tans. I used to be one of them. My friends and acquaintances on either side of these booths swarm the market. Now I have all the money I need, but I’ve never found my place among the happy shoppers buying small heirloom potatoes five at a time, in the transaction eagerly touching the blessed hand of the farmer who dug them from the dirt.
The first two vendors offer me toothpicked samples of cardamom buns and almond paste scones, but have no German chocolate cake. I must venture to the market’s interior. My eyes don’t waver. I take up Penelope’s desperate and singular focus on cake, cake, caaayyyke.
“Lara, Lara, Lara!”
Slowly, I turn. No Asher. She’s waving me over, big beaded earrings dangling in the morning bright. Market’s not half over and her produce is already running out. Remaining are a handful of green peppers, a few bags of hardy salad greens in ice, two baskets of raspberries, and three bunches of onions. They have done well today.
“Hey girl,” she says. She’s wearing the same thing as the night before. “I can’t believe you’re here! How’s your babe?”
“Asleep with Toby. She’ll be fine.” I explain the injury and simple treatment plan, and Moira listens, pausing here and there to greet customers who might buy some greens or meander on to a fuller stand.
She lowers her voice, and asks, “And how are you?”
“What do you mean?”
She pauses, like she’s searching for words. “That must have shaken you up, being way out in the country with an emergency. You know, reliving all that trauma.”
“Oh,” I say. I hadn’t even considered Penelope’s birth. The topic feels unnatural, actually. I have a sense Moira means something else, too. “I guess it never crossed my mind.”
“Wow! Way to go, girl. That’s awesome,” Moira congratulates me, tilting her head in a funny way. I can see that she’s looking for hurt, and—this is the disconcerting part—wants it. Another customer, set on making the perfect enchiladas using only local ingredients, draws her attention away. I almost leave, but my confusion keeps me there.
Moira turns back to me, all warmth again. Maybe it was my imagination. She hands me a bunch of onions.
“Here, you deserve these.”
“No, sell them. We’ve got plenty at home.”
“Lara, come on. You helped. And we’ve been a hit today. We exceeded our goals, even though I hiked up the prices. So savor these, please—the flavor is so delicate. And Asher appreciates your help.” Her smile widens as I reach for the bulbs.
“Yeah, he’s fine. In bed, you know,” Moira says, softly now, biting her lip.
“And you’re staying?”
“Yep, yeah, for now, yes.”
I tell her I’m sorry, because I don’t know what else to say. I want to ask who brought the booze. Or why we all gave in so easily. But she shakes her head, shushes me.
“It’s a process, you know,” she says, waving her hands. “I’d planned to cover his birthday market, anyway, before. Let’s blame the super moon. Can we? I mean, he was doing so well. He really was. A normal full moon is bad enough. But that. It must have messed with his inner currents so much. I mean, I felt it, and I’m not even a—you know. I mean, it was a mistake. But it’s over now. The super moon is done and gone and we’re just going to keep going because what else can we do, you know?”
Moira nods. Then she narrows her eyes, and asks me, “So what are you doing here?”
I laugh. “Penelope wants cake. Germing chocolate cake. The grocery store didn’t have any. I’m on the hunt. So far, no luck.”
“Oh my god I almost forgot,” Moira exclaims, throwing up her arms and spinning around. She bends down to an ice chest behind her booth and removes three plastic baggies. In each is a piece of her cake, a little flattened.
“I figured I better save these for you guys. I’d planned to drop them off after market but…” and she holds out the bags in what feels like a grateful gesture.
“But here I am.”
“And I’m so glad.” says Moira.
I receive the cake. Our fingers make pronounced contact. She’s not lowering her eyes. Something is between us.
I remember my mug and ask her about it.
“Oh,’ she says, holding her gaze. The smile remains but as a shell. “It broke. I don’t know how it happened. Sorry.” Moira looks away, greets a person who has come up on my right, unnoticed, and asks about the variety of the onions.
“No worries,” I mouth to her, shrugging. A coldness sweeps through my gut, up into my spine, landing in my chin, which quivers. I back away, telling Moira, who is busy, that I have to leave, and good luck, and thank you. My arms are heavy with her gifts. Through the frenetic crowd I see my bicycle, a fixed point, leaning against a tree.