Connecticut Summer 1999
The rusty porch glider squeaked as I swayed back-and-forth, mentally running through my ‘to-do’ list. Looking out at the overgrown lawn between sips of tea, I thought of the laundry piled high in the basement, the kitchen floor covered in footprints. I filled my lungs with summer morning air, almost tasting the brine of the Long Island Sound. Lifting arm, I used my tee-shirt sleeve to wipe the sweat off my brow and decided: to hell with the chores – a Saturday in July – we should go to the beach. Molly can play in the playground. A self-possessed 4 year-old, she makes friends easily, just like her dad used to before he started sleeping all day again.
Back pain, sinus headaches, upset stomach – ailments he complained of while swallowing pills and swigging neon medicine straight from the bottle. Lately, he didn’t bother making excuses for checking out since I already knew them all. But today might be different, I thought, conjuring the image of the three of us sprawling across a blanket on the sand after eating our picnic. It had been months since we’d done anything like that. It was still early though – even Molly had yet to get up. I’d make my rounds in the garden before trying to wake him.
I walked to the back of the house to the small vegetable patch where radishes crowded together, their red shoulders and green crowns jostling for position in the earth. I could never bring myself to thin out plants until it became obvious they were smothering each other. How could I decide which should go? I knew in the end, the radishes suffered from my indecision, growing twisted and skinny from lack of space. But the same technique worked out well with lettuce that thrived all clustered together, the ruby reds provided shade for the more delicate greens of the mesclun mix. I plucked a few leaves for our sandwiches.
“Mommy!” Molly called to me from the bathroom window.
“Good morning honey,” I answered, at once happy to see her sweet face and disappointed my solitude was up.
“Come join me,” I called back.
Her brown curls disappeared from the window and moments later reappeared at the screen door that slammed behind her. Maybe the sound would wake Neil. Climbing up three wide steps to the vegetable garden, she stepped through the gate and hugged me. She smelt of last night’s bath, her favorite pink Powder-Puff Girls nightgown clung to her back, damp from sleep. I called her my little radiator, always so warm. We crouched together searching the twisting plants for hidden pea-pods we popped whole into our mouths agreeing they were better raw. I grabbed her in for another hug before going back into the house for breakfast.
Would Neil spend another Saturday unconscious instead of with us? He stayed up late watching television until the early morning hours, claiming he couldn’t sleep – no wonder he couldn’t get out of bed the next day. I had no idea when he came to bed, but at 2:30 in the morning I woke to the canned-laughter of an English comedy. Rather than try and entice him to bed, I rolled over and willed myself back to sleep. Later I might try to cajole, nag and finally bully him to get up. Or maybe I wouldn’t. Molly no longer expected anything different from him. I should take my cue from her. She and I spent our days together running errands, dropping in to friends’ houses and enjoying whatever adventures came our way while he remained comatose in bed.
There were mornings, (although rare) when he’d get up and make us breakfast. Banging pans around, covering the counter with ingredients of his English breakfast complete with the canned tomatoes that Molly and I declined. Such times, his energy was irresistible. Swinging her over his shoulder calling her sausage, Molly laughed till she cried. He’d be helpful, jovially greeting neighbors as he clipped the hedges. Or we might drive around searching for tag sales finding bargains on things we didn’t really need. Desperate for that man, I continued to hope today would be one of those days.
Molly climbed onto the couch, fishing for the controls lost between the cushions during Neil’s late-night television viewing. After filling the kettle I poured cereal into a bowl, letting her eat in the living room, dish balanced on the faded blue couch armrest, eyes riveted by cartoons. It was almost 10:00 o’clock – 3 hours since I’d fed the cat and taken a shower. Another hour, I thought, deciding to be generous. His sinuses had been bothering him lately – another reason why he should get up and go to the beach with us – the sea air and sun might help. I washed the dishes that had appeared in the sink overnight. Mugs with tea and coffee stains – beakers, Neil called them. I guess I should be grateful he wasn’t a drunk, only drinking the odd beer with dinner. Still, I put my nose to the cups. They smelled faintly of milk.
Rinsing out the last dish, I looked out at the flower garden by the side of the house and noticed the lilies in bloom. Grabbing the scissors from the windowsill, I went out to the yard again, giving the screen door a good bang behind me.
Molly called, “Where are you going, Mommy?”
“I’m just cutting some flowers, honey. I’ll be back in a minute.”
The sun was getting hot and I should water before it gets too late. I usually tried to do this in the morning, getting up early before going to work at the bookstore. I read somewhere watering at night causes the roots to rot so I only did so if they were drastically wilted. First, I’d snip some flowers. I loved how the fragrance of the Oriental lilies filled the house. I didn’t bother with Daylilies as their bloom barely lasting an afternoon – I preferred to enjoy them as a bank of blossoms outside rather than in a vase, spent blossoms and pollen dropping all over the tablecloth.
Sitting on a wooden bench against a wall of tumbled rocks, I assessed the small flower garden. It lacked form. I read garden books and magazines but when it came time to plant, I did so without any design in mind and the results looked haphazard. No brilliant color scheme or orchestrated timing between blooms. I was learning as I went along. With a handful of lilies and daisies, I went back inside.
“Pretty!” Molly said, barely glancing up from the television.
“Aren’t they lovely?” I said. The kettle whistled.
With a cup of tea in one hand and a vase of flowers in the other, I climbed upstairs to our bedroom. It was almost 11. I left the door to the bedroom open earlier, but no morning noise, not the TV, the slamming screen door, or chatter, had any effect. Neil lay on his side, his usually handsome face slack – mouth open, his thick eyebrows every-which-way like useless paintbrushes. I put the tea on the end table next to the bed and touched his shoulder.
“Hey, it’s beautiful out. Why don’t you get up so we can go to the beach together?”
He didn’t flinch. I shook his shoulder slightly.
“Honey? Can you get up soon? It would be nice to spend the day together and it’s almost noon.” How silly of me to make the time later, as if an hour, or two, or three would even matter to him.
“I brought you a cup of tea.” Finally, a response – he opened one eye and grunted a barely audible answer, “In a minute.”
I left the room. From the top of the stairs I called down to Molly louder than necessary,
“Hey sweetie, do you want to go to the beach?”
I knew I was foolish to think this might provoke a reaction from Neil. In my imagination, he heard me and thought what a great idea it was to go to the beach with his darling daughter and beloved wife. In my fantasy, he sprang out of bed to join us. I tried to will this response into the bedroom, into his head, but in reality, he did not move. Molly ran up the stairs towards me, excited to go.
“Go get your bathing suit on. It’s in the bottom drawer.” I directed before going into my room and intentionally bumping into the bed en-route to the dresser. I changed out of my jeans into shorts before shoving the drawer shut with a thud. I left the tea to grow cold beside him.
I joined the other adults who watched from the shaded benches as their children climb over the wooden structures and bounce on the spring-toys shaped like animals. A father stood with two little boys, one barely walking and the other about 3 years old, played on the slide. Molly joined them to take her turn. The father hovered over the smaller boy tottering unsteadily on the steps, anxious to follow his brother. The beach, shimmering in the heat, filled with sunbathers and a lone swimmer swam laps. As cars drove through the beach entrance, I looked up watching for Neil’s.
“Mommy! Watch me!”
Molly slid down the pole and hit the sand hard, tumbling over. I moved to go to her but she stood up, smiled gamely and ran around to do it again.
“You go girl!” I applauded her. What a great kid. She didn’t ask where her father was or why he didn’t join us instead of sleeping all day. I almost wished she did so I could tell Neil, as if guilt about being an absent father might be the thing to finally jostle him into consciousness.
He would rouse by the evening and probably make a meal, doing his best to be good company. Would I find him unbearable or as usual, set aside my bitterness so as to not miss the crumbs of attention and affection? This couldn’t go on. But what could I do? I wanted our family to be intact. I wanted the man I married to come back to us.
The father and two boys were leaving.
“Come on guys, Mommy’s waiting!” Carrying the little one and holding the other boy’s hand, the man left to meet his wife. Was she at home in bed? Perhaps lingering luxuriously with a book and a cup of coffee he’d brought to her with a kiss before taking the boys to the park. Everyone else’s life appeared so normal, so appealing to me.
“Mommy, push me!” Molly called from the swings. She wiggled onto the metal seat and held tight to the chains. I pushed her gently. She pumped her legs forward and then behind, as I had taught her. The swings faced out to the water and we could see straight across to Long Island.
“Harder, mom! Push me harder!”
Molly strained as if to reach the sky, her little body stretching, feet pointing straight in her strappy-sandals, the strawberry-patterned dress ballooning around her, then collapsing again, with her eyes closed in ecstasy, she flew back towards the horizon. I wanted to join her.
“OK – one more push then you have to pump by yourself. I’m getting on this one!” I said, motioning towards the swing next to her.
Molly squealed as I gave her swing an extra-hard shove to propel her higher. Sliding onto the swing, I kicked away from the earth, lunging upwards, sweeping back and up again, the sound of Molly’s laughter rushing with the wind through my ears.