“How about a walk?”
She twisted in her chair to look at him. He had showered, shaved, and dressed. Standing in the doorway of their study, in his jeans and white cotton shirt, he looked younger. She melted a little.
“Um.” She looked down at her keyboard. Up at John. Out the window.
“Lizzie, we talked about this.” As he spoke, he reached up with both hands and grabbed the casing above the door. His boots rose from the floor a bit, then a bit more. “We’ve spent most of the past year living like hermits.” His arms had begun to shudder a bit, showing the strain. “You’re doing so much better now.” The top of his head had disappeared behind the door frame. His mouth was all she could see of his face. “We need to get out into the world. Be around people. Do things.”
He thudded to the floor. The books shifted on their shelves. The window panes rattled.
“Well? Come on. I won’t take ‘maybe tomorrow’ for an answer. It’s going to be great.” For a rare moment, John looked directly at her. No flinching. She tried to hold his gaze. She was trying to tell him, at a glance, what she had no words for. The shock of realizing that everything you had taken for granted was a lie. That there never had been a net. There you were, somersaulting through space, a thousand sets of eyes peering up at you. All of them watching to see whether you would grab the bar with your sweaty hands or fall to your death. And none of them caring which, not really.
“Okay, I guess. Where do you want to go?”
“Leave that to me. I have an idea.”
Lizzie shucked off her nightgown and pulled on her own jeans. John was in the kitchen. She heard the refrigerator door open and close, open and close. He was humming to himself. She urged herself to keep moving. If she stopped, she might never move again.
She brushed her hair without looking in the mirror. Once, she remembered, when she was a small child, she had asked her mother why her grandmother needed so many rings. She asked Lizzie to repeat the question and so she did. “But why do you think Nana has a lot of rings?” “Because,” Lizzie had said, “every time we take her home, she asks you to give her a ring.” Her mother had burst out laughing. To Lizzie, the sound had felt like daggers. Her face was hot with shame. When they reached their own home, she ran to her bedroom and lay weeping on her bed. Inconsolable. Her mother’s looks of incredulity and then of exasperation — unbearable. Finally, worn out from crying, she had slept through dinner. She woke in the hour before dawn. For a delicious moment, she did not realize that she was still wearing her clothes. She remembered nothing of what had happened the day before. For a second or two, she was no longer yearning for the earth to open up and swallow her down.
“Ready?” John was standing in the doorway again, keys in hand and backpack slung over his shoulder. She managed a smile.
When they pulled out of the driveway, Lizzie asked again where they were going. John merely lifted an eyebrow and smiled. He was right. It was good to be out of the house. In the car, she could look out at people, but they took no notice of her. They drove out of town and along the river. Not thinking, she pulled down the visor to shade her face. She had forgotten about the vanity mirror. She caught a glimpse of herself before she was able to look away.
For a while, they rode in peaceable quiet. John hummed occasionally, a thing he had done as long as she had known him. They had met in college. He was the Wunderkind of the math department, while she studied Greek literature. In those days, she had been the more self-assured. Her friends in college were odd but also adventurous and interesting. On weekend nights, she had pulled John away from the math library to attend their parties, which usually had a theme and always required a costume. He dressed as an obscure mathematician or some concept expressed by a mathematical formula. Her friends more than humored him. They came to adore him, just as she had.
“Let me ask you something, okay?” John glanced over at her. She nodded. “When were you happiest in your life? I mean, from as far back as you can remember right up until now.” She noticed that he began to reach for her knee, to pat or stroke it, before he stopped.
Silence. Lizzie knew immediately what was at stake. She had known all along. John had worked this out. He had planned this trip. No, he had already taken this trip in his mind. Every topic of conversation, the wonders of nature, everything chosen by him to bring about her complete and miraculous recovery. The stories he would tell! To his family, to their friends, describing the scene. The two of them standing close. The stillness of the deep forest around them. His arms wrapped around her shoulders. Her words: “I’m back, John. I know it now. Thank you for this. I’m back.”
More silence. She felt her heart quivering, then pounding. Darkness crept in at the edges of her vision. She imagined that their car had lifted from the ground. It was soaring above the river and the trees. Higher and higher, and she was so much stricken with fright that she could not turn her head to either side.
And then it was too late. She felt more than saw him sag. His forehead creasing. Her husband curling up around yet another grievance.
She was so preoccupied with all this that she had paid no attention to where he had driven them. “John,” her voice came out as a croak, “where are we? What are you doing?”
“Lizzie” — that tone she knew so well, the mathematician explaining his proof — “you know as well as I do that you have to confront it. What happened. What you … tried to do. You can’t hide in our bedroom forever. That’s just not how it works, Lizzie. We don’t get to … to just check out of life. Everyone has responsibilities, Lizzie. If we’re not tending to our own duties, then they fall on someone else.” Me, he meant. “Isn’t that right? If there are things that must done, and you yourself refuse to do them, or help do them, then someone else is saddled with those obligations. Right? And that’s not fair. It’s just not fair to other people to make no effort at all. Don’t you agree?”
Ergo, Lizzie is selfish. Lizzie is bad. QED.
No tears came. John pulled into the lot, slammed the car into park, and tumbled out of the car.
No tears came. She walked behind him on the trail. The distance between them grew. His legs were like scissors: open, close, open, close. She lost sight of him when the path curved. She lost sight of him entirely.
No tears came. When she reached the clearing, she was alone.
© 2014 Jim Abbot