Affection

By Shannon Sweetnam

They moved into the squat brick Georgian in June. They bought trash cans and cleaning supplies, a plastic patio table and chair set, a shiny red front-propelled rear-bag lawn mower, three combination carbon monoxide detector fire alarms, two fire extinguishers, a fold-up escape ladder, a battery-operated weather radio, a gas grill, and — just in case — a wooden baseball bat Jake planned on keeping under the bed.

Photo of floating barrier taken under pool water by Steve Jurvetson

Dimensions. Photo by Steve Jurvetson via Flickr. (Creative Commons)

Jake locked the battered U-Haul, hitched it to the car and drove, with Julie beside him, away from their three-flat, the rumble of the El, the whirl of sirens, the faintly tuba-like swoosh of  the bus galloping to a stop at the street’s end. Julie looked back at the apartment through the dusty side mirror, wanting to remember the way the fractured sunlight hit the stained glass windows on the second floor they had called home the first year of their marriage. Then she turned and faced the road ahead of her. It would never have occurred to her to leave the city, but Jake insisted she would love the quiet, northern suburb he had chosen for them. And she had faith that, in enough time, she would.

Several evenings a week, Julie grilled hamburgers or chicken kebobs while Jake scrubbed and set the patio table. They ate admiring the fuchsia clematis blooming along the fence, the wild strawberries ripening along the side of the detached garage, the well-pruned lilac bushes edging the patio, and the fine, straight birch at the back of their small lawn. Jake drank Heineken and rambled on about his plans to fix both the doorbell and the leaking spigot on Saturday, maybe even replace the kitchen door’s rotting threshold. He spoke of covering the dryer vent with a metal cage to keep out mice and chipmunks, installing a new kitchen sink faucet and disposal, possibly even building an ice rink right there in the backyard a few years out, once they had a kid old enough to skate. Julie listened to him every night until he went inside to pee, then stole long pulls from the beer he wouldn’t let her have, now that they were officially trying.

Every morning, Jake brewed a carafe of decaf and reminded Julie to take her prenatal vitamins, which he had chosen himself after several discussions with her gynecologist and two pharmacists, one at Walgreens, the other at the small, family-run pharmacy around the corner. Once in June and then in July, he waited outside the bathroom door while she peed on the stick, made her hand it over as he watched the clock. When two distinct lines appeared in the small confirmation square, Jake returned from work with a bouquet of train station kiosk roses which Julie arranged in the heavy, cut glass vase they’d gotten for their wedding.

Julie threw up at work and the quiet Korean girl in design leaked everything. Her boss said mothers-to-be weren’t dependable, in his experience. Who knew, maybe she’d be an exception, but she turned out not to be. She began to show up a half hour late, pale and spent. She was forgetful and had to triple check her work. Her head throbbed, and the world spun when she stood up quickly, as if she had just leapt from a playground roundabout. It’s not that she wasn’t happy about the pregnancy, but cramps seized her mid-section, migraines parked themselves above her brow line, and a steady, unfaltering fatigue seized her and did not let go.

When people come over, you cant just wipe the counter without removing the canisters, the toaster and the coffee maker, he insisted. There are still crumbs underneath the toaster and coffee stains where the rubber pads sit on the counter! Its like youve never cleaned before! It was relentless, even if he never raised his voice. When she yelled back, he told her she was out of control, and she fell to crying. Five months pregnant, she’d cleaned and vacuumed the house, shopped, made appetizers and chilled the Sauvignon Blanc for the three couples they were hosting that evening. All she wanted was to draw a bath and feel the steam rise around her before the guests arrived, her neck resting on the nubby terry cloth pillow suctioned to the far end of the tub. The boyfriend she’d had before Jake would have yelled back. They would have fought until they’d pushed their way inside each other, the sheets a tangled mess smelling of sweat and sex. It’d been over two months now since she and Jake had done anything in the bedroom. Don’t cry, Jake warned her. Don’t you dare go and start that on me. He swept the papers off the counter and stuffed them in the closet, the invitations, coupons, bills, and catalogs she’d worked that week to organize now thrown, willy nilly, into a handled paper grocery bag. Don’t you dare leave, he ordered, but she did. She ran out shoeless in the dark November evening, walking a mile east to the lake. When she arrived at the bluff, she descended the stone steps cut into the steep ravine, crossed the sand and let the frigid waves crash against her calves before returning home in time to greet the first guest. Hours later, when the last of the couples stumbled down the street toward home, she curled up on the edge of the mattress and fell into a fitful sleep, the sound of her own breathing lapping into the memory of the dark lake.

Post-pregnancy, she found herself overweight and oddly shaped. Julie stood dumbfounded in front of the mirror, seeing all-too-clearly in the bright morning sun the raised stretch marks that now clung to her breasts and thighs and the curve of flesh that swung uselessly around her middle. She threw Little John into the used jogging stroller she’d found at the thrift store and ran with him as soon as Jake left for the train. Her stomach bounced over the tops of her running shorts as leaves swirled down the crushed gravel trail. The train dashed alongside her as she ran toward the library in hopes of finding a friend, someone else with a newborn who might, at certain moments of the day, feel like clutching Julie’s hand and following her off the edge of a nearby cliff.

She stood dumbfounded in front of the mirror, seeing the raised stretch marks that now clung to her breasts and thighs…

Though she and Susan had been due only three weeks apart, they met only recently, at the post office, where Julie discovered her new friend lived five doors down in the sprawling brick Tudor on the wide, corner lot. They began to meet every morning. They ran with the babies along the seventeen-mile trail near their houses, or through the winding side streets that led to Lake Michigan — St. John’s Avenue to Laurel to Lake to Ravine and back down the trail toward Roger Williams. They ran to the library or the beach and sprinted up and down the steep stone steps carved into the ravine while the babies slept beachside, their strollers anchored in the sand. They ordered matching wool-lined buntings and rain-proof plastic stroller covers and continued to run as the temperature fell. Julie loved the way Susan encouraged her to lose weight, to run faster and longer. And when Susan told her she would always be there for her, Julie felt the same astonishment, the same knot of fear that had gripped her when her high school Latin teacher pulled her into the back corner of the classroom and kissed her against the poorly drawn columns of the Parthenon. She was that desperate for a friend. She would admit it, but only to herself.

Little John lay nestled in the crook of her arm, smelling of balsam from his christening. She leaned close to him in order to breathe the transient smell. Her knobby-kneed nieces ran with abandon through the house, while a cold and steady rain beat against the windows, so the clear panes drooled with water the entire afternoon. Both mother and mother-in-law busied themselves in the kitchen. For once, Jake looked her way and smiled. The house was clean and the food good and he assumed she did it all herself. It was her mother’s idea to help her out, giving her a couple hundred dollars to pay for a maid and a caterer, then hiding the aluminum take-out containers in the bottom of the trash can out back. Her mother knew what she was going through, even if she did live a thousand miles away. The table was set with lasagna and ravioli and stuffed mushrooms, garlic bread and Caesar salad, a cherry gelatin mold, miniature cheesecakes and a white cross-shaped cake with rich, butter cream icing. The house smelt of cheese and garlic, Pine Sol and vinegar, all swirled into the balsam and baby powder and the smell of urine coming from Little John. She stroked her son’s dark, wispy hair as her husband walked over and kissed her meaningfully on the crown of her head.

Jake had run into her three times in one week — his old girlfriend from law school, the redhead from Wisconsin, the one who had dragged him with her family to their ranch in Hawaii one winter break, to their lodge in Beaver Creek the next, the one he felt was so out of touch with reality.  The redhead would get a job after school because of who she knew, how much money her parents had forked over already for summer internships, the air of privilege she toted around like a Gucci bag. It was wanting to stand on his own two feet that made him break up with her after two years. Now, they spoke freely on the train, for she was engaged and he was married and working his way up at a decent law firm. Even if he began to rush to catch the seven fifty, even if he walked the cars until he found her, even if they sometimes rested their legs against each other for a few seconds after the train jostled them into each other, they were just responsible adults chewing the fat during their morning commute. Where was the harm in that?

Little John padded quietly down the stairs. He’d been told how many times already to go to bed? Had Jake spanked him earlier or just threatened it? For the life of her, Julie couldn’t recall. Tears stained his full cheeks. The snowmen on his footed pajamas scowled at her in the stairwell’s dim light. Her husband turned down the volume on the game and glared at Julie. Was she supposed to get up and put John back to bed again? The boy sat on the last step, thumb plugged in his full, puckered lips. She could not bear to force him upstairs one more time, to sit outside his door and put him back in bed over and over again so he learned how to sleep without her. She motioned to him privately and he ran to her, nuzzled his cheek to her breast and fell immediately to sleep, eyes rolled back, his eyelids cracked open like a bedroom door. She was ruining him, she supposed. But she wanted to hold Little John as much as he wanted to be held.

He would fake excitement, reassure her as best he could to get her off his back for now, though anger boiled up in him as he cursed his bad luck…

It was Susan who convinced her to join the masters’ swim team. It was Susan who wrote the check for them both and said not to worry about it, that it was important they encourage each other to get in shape. So they ran together almost every morning, their growing toddlers strapped into their jogging strollers and given baggies of Froot Loops or Goldfish to keep them occupied, Susan singing the ABC song over and over to them sometimes until the rhythm of the wheels on the crushed path lured them to sleep. Twice a week, Julie drove Susan to swim practice at the high school pool while their husbands stayed home. The coach was impressed with how quickly they understood the drills and learned how to make tight flip turns. On the way home, Susan went on and on about Coach Jim, who was young, good looking, and full of enough self-deprecating jokes to endear himself to everyone.

Jake noticed all the weight she’d lost in the year since Little John was born, how good she looked in her friend Susan’s designer hand me downs. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to say a word. He was jealous Julie had time to exercise, the energy to do it, envious that she got to stay home with Little John while he trudged through the rain and slush to the train every living day of his God damn life.

The change came about slowly over the long winter but started after Christmas when the swim coach moved Julie up to an intermediate lane, leaving Susan behind in the novice. He’d spent extra time encouraging Julie, analyzing her stroke and pushing her to compete in local meets. She smiled whenever he approached her, more out of shyness than anything else, and her comments made him laugh, even when she hadn’t intended them to. Susan began driving herself to the pool. By early spring, Susan had found a new partner to run with in the mornings and quit the swim team altogether, refusing to return Julie’s calls. Julie would be careful from now on how much of herself she gave to anyone. She tried not to think about her best friend, but it was hard not to. They had run almost every day together for three years. And all Jake said was to forget the stuck up bitch and move on, as if memories could be erased that easily.

Julie announced she was pregnant right before work, and he said Jesus Christ, why did you have to tell me on the way to the office? He had to argue a case that morning. Now, he had to wrap his mind around a child he had not expected! As infrequently as they slept together, what were the chances? Sorry, he told her as she teared up. I have to run or I’ll miss my train. He pulled her dark hair back from her face and kissed her haphazardly on the cheek, then jogged the two blocks to the station, forgetting his coffee and The New York Times in its thin blue plastic casing by the front door. The redhead was waiting for him in the second car. They drank her coffee together and picked up their conversation from the morning before, while he wrestled with Julie’s announcement. He made a note to bring home train station kiosk roses again, pink this time, and splurge on pizza from the corner take out joint. He would fake excitement, reassure her as best he could to get her off his back for now, though anger boiled up in him as he cursed his bad luck and the long years ahead of him raising yet another Godforsaken offspring.

Julie fared well the first few months of her second pregnancy. She was able to continue running and swimming and taking care of Little John, but by her twenty-week check up, the placenta had drifted. Take it easy, the doctor told her. Limit your stairs, your housework. Don’t lift anything heavy. Don’t exercise. She kept the news to herself for two weeks, and finally told Jake when he exploded about the laundry piling up in the basement. He barraged her with questions she didn’t know the answers to until she grabbed her keys and jacket and drove to the old movie theater downtown, paying to see a film already half over.

He’d leaned in the bedroom doorway, beer in hand, trying to find the words to start a conversation.

They didn’t talk for months, until a few days before Lila was born. Their speech was slow and careful, as if they were talking their way down a tightrope. Jake drove her to the hospital, stayed with her through the long birth, but headed home a few hours after Lila entered the world. Alone in her room, Julie woke to what sounded like gun shots. She grabbed onto the clear plastic bassinet, her heart racing until she remembered it was the fourth of July. She picked up the phone to call Jake, but the sitter said he hadn’t made it home yet. She wanted someone to bring her warm socks, a cheeseburger and fries. She had never wanted anything more in her life. He must have been in a car accident, she thought, unless he was out celebrating his daughter’s birth without her? Lila stirred and cried and there was nothing Julie could do but pick her up, nurse her, and try to ignore her exhausted, starving, pain-racked body.

He was upstairs polishing the chrome faucet in the bathroom, picking wet washcloths and poop-stained super hero underwear off the tile floor so the house would look presentable. Why hadn’t she done this? The sitter already here and he had to clean. Toothpaste in the sink, John’s unmade bed. Did they have enough Tylenol on hand in case anyone got sick? A careless wife who has to be taught to worry — and to think this is what had drawn him to her on that frigid Chicago night when she’d gone out bare-headed during a winter squall and he’d given her his new double-thick Bears cap for the walk home.

He found the redhead’s work number online and invited her to lunch. It’d been almost three years since he’d first bumped into her on the train, and they’d become good friends, managed to keep things on the up and up, except for the night of his daughter’s birth when they had met for drinks and he’d kissed her for a long time in the alley behind the bar.  Lucky you don’t have kids yet, he often told her. Lucky for now, she quipped. Lila was one and half, a strong-willed child whose hair grew in wild ringlets, her locks an extension of her boisterous personality. And John, two years older, as temperamental and sullen as a mule.

Her head ached, Lila’s nose dripped and outside the rainstorm melted the last few pockets of snow off the lawn, which seemed to have turned entirely into mud over the winter. It was as if the yard had never been sodded, and she wondered anxiously what it would cost to repair and when she would have time to water new grass seed with so much to do inside. She parked the kids in front of Sesame Street and picked up toys, mopped the kitchen floor, baked sugar cookies for John’s preschool, then discovered the wet carpet in the basement when she went down to do laundry, water pouring in from cracks in the paneled walls. Watch Lila, she told John. Don’t let her come down here. She settled them at their craft table with washable markers and coloring books, crackers and spill-proof cups of milk, then trod downstairs. She pulled back the carpet from the tack boards, lifted the padding and got the fans going under it on high speed. In the meantime, John slipped on pink puddle boots and green frog slicker, stuffed Lila into his old fire chief one, not bothering to shoe her before he took her on the driveway to play in the puddles. Julie stomped on the carpet with towels while the fans whirred noisily around her. The doorbell rang and rang. Thunder struck. She ran upstairs to find her children at the door, soaked, Lila screaming and clawing at her brother. “She eat worms!” John announced proudly. “I told her it was candy and stupid Lila ate them!” Julie raced them through their bath, fed them an early dinner and got them to sleep before Jake popped in the side door. He was proud of her for taking charge of the flooding, for using the fans and soaking up the water. You’re a wonderful wife, he told her. And a wonderful mother, too, for keeping Lila inside all day so she can get over her cold.

Summer arrived with the drone of cicadas, their seventeen year emergence. Other mothers warned Julie against holding a birthday picnic for Lila at the park. We won’t come, they told her. You’re going to have prehistoric bugs flying onto the cupcakes. Can you imagine? Julie did imagine and didn’t care, nor would Lila. She had gotten up early to run and stood now at the kitchen window looking out onto the weed-choked garden edging the backyard. That morning she’d seen a huge cicada cluster on the side of the burr oak in the neighbor’s yard, and now she could hear them out back, even with the windows shut. She heard a thump as someone either got up or fell out of bed. Lila appeared holding her blanket at the top of the stairs, backlit by the sun coming through the upstairs window, her golden hair a tangled nest of snakes. My little Medusa, Julie thought, as she climbed up the stairs to fetch her baby, Lila’s arms wrapped around her tattered blankie.

The swim team met earlier now that it was summer. Jake complained that he had to put the kids to bed, but she left anyway. Now that they were done swimming earlier, they met afterward at Red Tavern Grill, which was catty corner from the high school. She’d made a couple of friends on the team, a couple of women who weren’t put off by her dry sense of humor. The coach came to these post-swim get-togethers, sometimes with his wife, but most of the time alone. Often, he sat next to her, let his knee rest against hers, unseen underneath the table, toward the end of the night. The first few times, she moved her own knee away, until she realized the touch was not accidental. She knew, the way anyone would, that she shouldn’t allow it, but she did.

John could not sit still. He stood at the dinner table rocking back and forth, legs jingling and jangling like a pack of anxious greyhounds in the starter gate. Julie didn’t seem to notice, but Jake did. If she could just be more forceful with the children. If she could just be more — normal! She’d taught John to count in Hindu and Mandarin (of all things!) but the kid was almost four and didn’t know his colors. “Sit,” Jake ordered. John stood, slurping his strawberry milk. “Good dinner,” Jake told his wife. He put his hand on Julie’s underneath the table and smiled at her, and at his twitchy, poorly mannered son, and at his daughter feeding herself in the highchair, finger-painting yogurt into that God-awful mess of hair. “Sit,” he told his son again. John stood.

That night she was up sick with Lila while he snored softly on the sofa, the middle of the night advertisements for ab curlers, salad choppers and plastic vacuumed storage bags flashing their way up the stairs to where she lay in the hall. Lila moaned and coughed, butt up, feet tucked under her. “Shhh…” she told Lila. She rubbed her daughter’s back slowly and gently. Half asleep, her mind wandered and she thought back to how she had trembled the night Jake put the engagement ring on her finger, how she had actually trembled! She tried to go back and remember what is was like five years ago, when they slept curled around each other in the twin bed until they’d saved enough to buy a queen-size mattress.

It was the thirteenth snowiest winter in two hundred years, the coldest in the two decades. They bought extra pairs of long underwear and winter gloves and neck warmers and wool socks. She purchased flannel sheets on sale and put them on the beds, crammed the worn cotton sheets into plastic storage containers. She bought two massive tubs of hot chocolate. Jake even built a small ice rink in the backyard with some two by fours, screws and a white plastic tarp. She filled the bird feeder with thistle, had the children cover pine cones in peanut butter and hang them from the lilac bushes. The wind blew. The pipes froze and burst under the kitchen sink. John fell on the ice rink and broke his arm. Lila drank so much marshmallow-heaped hot chocolate that she threw up on half a dozen separate occasions. Julie missed her period and started to feel queasy.

The Allegro, Wednesday nights, because they had free wine from five to seven and the rooms were cheap. Just this once, she’d told him four months ago. The one Wednesday she was ill, he’d assumed it was over and had raced home to Julie with a bottle of Cabernet, slept with her the way you sleep with someone you just want to fuck. It was two days later that he realized he forgot to use a condom. He was afraid to admit how overwrought he had been, how careless he was to go and fall in love.

She laced up her skates. John, his arm still in a cast, and Lila with her blankie, sat propped in front of the old box  television they’d brought down from their bedroom after the new flat screen broke. John whined. Lila kicked him and twirled her sticky fingers through her hair. Just watch TV will you? she’d asked. No more snacks, no more settling arguments. They could live without her for five minutes. The phone rang and rang. It rang again and again. Julie was outside, skating on the clear ice, laughing at herself when she lost her balance. Squirrels scurried along the picket fence, their shadows following them along the snow-covered lawn. The ice cracked and settled beneath her skates while a woodpecker worked away at the birch. All around her steam escaped from chimneys and a distant train clacked along the tracks. It was John who finally scooted a chair to the phone mounted on the kitchen wall. Daddy! Daddy! I don’t know where Mommy is. I can’t find her! How could John forget where she was? If they just turned their heads from the television and looked out the sliding glass door, they could see her skating in slow, sloppy figure eights or trying to lean forward, push off her toes and skate backwards.

He wondered if she knew about the redhead, but he didn’t see how. He almost loved Julie more now that he had two women. He’d had one-night stands a few times out in L.A., New York, and once, no — make that twice — in Kansas City. It was just a few times, and the escapades made him more forgiving of the dirty house when he returned, made him more affectionate toward his wife, though he knew that sounded a bit crazy. Now, Julie was in bed with the flu and he had to make the five-hour drive north to Eau Claire to see his parents for Easter alone. They were waiting for him, so he packed and went, with the expectation that Julie would be able to make it up the following afternoon. Ten minutes later, Julie drove herself to the emergency room. All she had to do was shred the explanation of benefit statements when it arrived. Her miscarriage was her own business. She didn’t want the burdensome trifecta of Jake’s sympathy, guilt and anger. She wanted to be left alone.

Lila screamed. She was tired of being held captive under the stroller’s plastic shield. She screamed and screamed while Julie ran down the muddy trail through the cold rain. If Julie pushed herself, she could be home in twelve minutes, but she still had cramps from the miscarriage. She’d forgotten Lila’s blanket. She’d forgotten Lila’s milk and Cheerios and spare diaper. She smelled the mess in Lila’s pants. An old man biked slowly past her and gaped at the child violently kicking her legs against the clear plastic cover, her chest thrusting against the tight five-point harness. It was almost time to pick up John from preschool; she wouldn’t have time to change Lila until afterwards. “Out!” Lila demanded. “Out! Out!”

“Just a minute,” her mother begged, sprinting painfully down the soggy trail, her eyes misting.

Julie took the kids to Sunday School and church. Jake stayed home and read the paper. Saturday was wasted with yard work and errands, swim lessons for Little John. How did she even find a church to go to? All he’d ever seen was synagogues, not that he’d ever seen any of his neighbors head off to them. They’d all gone to their clubs to play tennis or sat that very moment in the comfy wooden booths at Country Kitchen eating thick apple pancakes and Mexican omelets. The luck of some bastards, he thought, sipping the weak, ground-infested coffee Julie brewed in the now tranquil chaos of his toy-strewn home. He thought back to Friday night. He’d looked at her. He’d leaned in the bedroom doorway, beer in hand, trying to find the words to start a conversation. Nine fifteen and she was already in her nightgown, under the covers with a library book propped open on her bent legs. She’d asked him earlier that day if he was sleeping with someone else and he told her the truth, which was no, because the affair had ended two weeks ago. The redhead had called it off, and he’d never felt such despair. He drove to work now. He couldn’t even look at the train. And he could hardly look at Julie either, as if she somehow were complicit in causing his pain.

She left just before nine p.m., John and Lila both finally asleep. You are nuts to go out and swim this late, he said, but she could tell he didn’t mind being left alone to slug a few cold ones and watch the hockey game. She’d missed two weeks of practice, and the coach had called worried about her, but she hadn’t called back. When she got to the pool, he smiled broadly at her, and waited for her to explain what happened, so she told him they’d all had the flu, one after the other after the other. He caught up with her in the parking lot after practice and when she looked up at him, she began to cry. Dont, he told her, wiping her tears. A few minutes later, when everyone else had driven away, he sat beside her in the front passenger seat of her minivan and kissed her the way you might kiss an injured child, lightly, on her cheek, first one, then the other, and he then held her in his arms until she settled down.

Hours later, she fell into a deep chlorine-scented dream, her one-piece racer dampening the sheets. In the morning, from what seemed like miles away, she could hear Jake humming a simple tune while he jangled the lever of the temperamental toaster. The room filled with the smell of strong coffee and the creak and thump of children scampering up the stairs. Then Little John and Lila were on top of her, clamoring this way and that, pulling hard at her arms, calling her name, asking her to take them sledding because it snowed, Mommy, it snowed everywhere! Lila scrambled to the window. She tugged on the shade until it popped up and bright winter light flooded the room. “Get up!” Lila ordered. “Get up!” Little John ordered. “Mommy! Mommy! Get up!  Come to the window and just see!”

This entry was posted in Fiction and tagged , . Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

About Shannon Sweetnam

Shannon Sweetnam is a Chicago-based fiction writer whose stories have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Crab Orchard Review, Dominion Review, Georgetown Review, The Pinch, Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments, and NANO Fiction. She is winner of the 2010 Jack Dyer Fiction Prize and has received two Illinois Arts Council grants.

2 Comments

  1. Julia Hanna
    Posted October 2014 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Wonderfully written…such an insightful, sad, funny perspective on marriage.

  2. JL
    Posted October 2014 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    Such a great story. Rich details and interesting characters. What happens next?!?

Post a Reply to Julia Hanna Cancel reply

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

*
*

  • In The Latest Issue

  • Browse by Genre

  • Archives

    open all | close all