Part I: There Is No Try: Ashley

In Short Stories by Meg Sternbee0 Comments

Alex is gone. A dry suffocation takes over. The ache begins in my arm, slowly moves across the chest via the shoulder by way of the clavicle and onward through the lungs to the solar plexus where havoc wreaks upon my stomach. Some slut from the congregation, I want to say to my nosy neighbor, instead I smile with ironic delight at her question about the For Sale sign recently staked in the Begonia’s mulch bed. I can breath now, which means I can speak and scream, promise the silent house that Alex will never see a dime. Not a chance in hell, buddy, is how long monologues to myself end.

The therapist tells me to understand my husband. I want to ask her why I should do that, instead I say something smart about his dick, how it’s apparently not house broken. “I can completely understand…” The therapist says in her soft slow voice that makes me want to wrap my hands around the woman’s neck until her ears are purple and her eyes squeeze out of their sockets. I become lost in my violent fantasy missing the majority of her dialogue.

“…tation and breathing exercises?” Realizing she’s asked a question I nod while removing my butt from the leather sofa that cost five grand for one cushion. The therapist says she wants to see me again next week.

“I can’t,” I lie. The use of deception has felt good lately. Maybe because I’ve never been a liar before—it’s one of those forbidden fruits we are told not to bite into, but now the freedom of weaving fiction into my reality causes my mind to understand an even greater fraud. “I have a doctors appointment—one with my medical doctor.” I add, hoping to cause a sting that seems to have no source like a paper cut.

“Is everything ok?”

“I’m sure.” I hold back the smirk threatening to curl my lips. You would want to know, wouldn’t you? Besides savage and false, I can add maniacal to the list of adjectives describing my introspection. But this anger I keep quietly zipped up inside me. There’s no sense in giving others more of what they desire. “Just a check up.”

“Well stop in with Pam on your way out. I’m sure we can get you in at another time.”

I nod but when I leave the leather walled room and pass the receptionist typing ferociously on hidden keys I wave and walk by. I’ll get a call later or tomorrow morning but I will ignore it. I know therapy isn’t going to do a damn thing. The only act that could have influenced this moment would have been to never put Grace in her crib, never let her cry, but rocked and rocked and rocked; rocked forever. It’s my own selfishness that did the killing. And there is no cure for that sort of guilt—nothing short of a time machine.

This is the point in my day when I start thinking about miracles. Not the kind where Jesus comes through a thick crowd of believers, his long white robes moving like a soft breeze, come to heal a child near death, or provide enough food and wine to feed a multitude. No, the miracle I’m thinking about is one that turns back time, one that makes it so I never meet Alex in the first place, never fall in love, never stand under an alter and pretend to promise forever—never get pregnant.

Initially people in our congregation brought over green bean and tuna casseroles, pinched their lips together and hugged Alex and I shyly. When we decided to attend service again those same people looked on curiously, approaching tentatively with a mouth brimful of wisdom. Mostly I didn’t like hearing them tell us our child was God’s to use for his purpose and the way Alex clung to the flock sickened me. “We don’t need them,” I said bitterly, refusing to go back.

Every once in awhile I run into someone at the grocery store. I will have an apple or two in hand, weighing and outweighing blemishes, someone will come up to me, all dimples, say they miss seeing me at worship, ask how I am doing. Dandy. Praising God daily for stopping my baby’s heart and putting infidelity into my husband’s. I return their smile and wonder if my mock up is sufficient to get them on the move. The worst is to let these people think you have grief they can sponge on. “Give me an excuse to lean on my God, I dare you,” their agitated grin says. Hoping mine mimics the zeal I imagine their round mouth stuffed with an apple, body tied to a cross while flames mosh over them.

The last time I see Alex I am coming back from the therapist. He is sitting on the front steps when I pull in the driveway, his head in his hands. He looks up when he hears me crank on the emergency brake. Another time he might have told me how I will ruin the transmission doing shit like that. He stands up when I walk towards the front door. He has come for the last of his stuff. The meetings with the realtor and lawyers have all come and gone. Alex spent a day filling his truck already, with his trumpet and the hideous recliner his mom brought over, so I know there is more to this visit. I scowl at him but leave the door open after I walk in the house. I put hot water on to boil as I listen to his steps above me. For a second this sound opens me up, makes me want to run upstairs and beg him not to leave. Instead I pour boiling water over a tea bag. After 15 minutes of not hearing a sound upstairs I take the steps slowly. Alex is in Grace’s room. He sits cross-legged on the floor, his back against the crib, face in hands. He has an old backpack, bulging and laid against him. The black curly hairs on his knees and calves, whirlpools sucking my vision into their depths, evoke a time they brushed against my own legs. I sit down next to him. There isn’t anything appropriate to say. I know why he is here. He needs to say goodbye. I know he is thinking about the nightmare unfolding in this room. How The Investigator had been the worst, coming right behind the ambulance, handing me a doll, telling me to re-enact the moments as I put Grace down for her nap. “Now how did your daughter look when you found her?” I can still feel the icy words hit me like chards of glass. I had broken down and The Investigator left soon after, but I could never leave—not the memory—Grace, face up with saliva and blood bubbling out lips frozen apart. And the stiffness, when I picked her up—the doll felt more alive than Grace had.

“I want you to know I tried,” Alex says lifting his head. “You wouldn’t even let me touch you—Christ.” His voice is so choked, I can barely understand the words slurring from his lips. I see tears slide down his cheeks and leave wet tracks like our sleds did when we were teens trying to come up with wholesome activities. My head is heavy and I want to rest it on Alex’s shoulder like I used to do after hours in the snow, huddling together with hot chocolate in someone’s basement or bonus room. Something else was working to keep me away though and instead of a tender moment I retaliated.

“You always were good at trying.”

He turns to me with the bitterest pitying face I have ever seen coming off him, as if he witnessed some horrific event worse than his daughter found dead in her crib. “I’m sorry Ash. I came here to tell you I am sorry.”

Don’t be corny. What I might have said when we were teens, in order to absorb an uncomfortable feeling. But today there is no way out. Our discomfort is eternal. “I don’t see how an apology is going to help me much.” I cringe at my own acidity.

“And it’s all about you, isn’t it Ash? You’re just going to have to deal with this. I don’t care anymore, how you do that, I can’t care.”

“Is that what THEY told you to say. Is that what SHE told you to say?” I can sense my voice rising in amplification but the vibration in my ears is making the sound of my voice seem far away. “If you are really tortured by the loss of OUR daughter, you might not have had time to fu—don’t walk away. All you know how to do is turn your back on me!” I know I’m screaming by now, but I can’t stop. “How can you allow yourself happiness—with another woman—when your own wife suffers alone?” Sobs begin to fog my eyes and my voice is barely audible now, “Run away then, run away to your whore.” I can hear the front door slam.

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