Perambulating the Bounds
Annie is caught between the wall and her husband Joe. His leg twitches and his foot paws the sheets. Joe Sleeping Dog she calls him, because of the nocturnal running. He’s like her long dead dog Kippy, whose legs quivered as he dreamed his doggy dreams of catching birds and other fantasies. What is Joe chasing?
She slides out of bed now, so as not to wake Joe. The pine floorboards in the middle of the hall squeak, so she sidles around the edges, pressed to the wall, thief-like. Stealing time. The kitchen floor is cold. Her neighbor Celia’s light is on, too, Annie notices through her kitchen window; the one-story bungalows are nestled close. Celia’s eighty years old but gets up at 5:30 every morning, even the 300 days a year it rains in Seattle, to take her dog to the park. If her kitchen were dark, Annie would fear that Alfred, her cancer-riddled husband, had died or that Celia herself had lost her place in time and space. Celia’s pink tea roses still bloom triumphantly beyond Annie’s dining room window. She’s an artist in the garden, but doesn’t discriminate between weeds and flowers. Annie is no gardener, but she is a weeder, hacking down ferns at the first curl of brown, pulling up tulips after they’ve lost their petals.
Joe washed the coffee pot last night as always; it is what she is most grateful for every morning. Annie measures the coffee and pours in the cold water, watching the shadows of Celia in her kitchen, performing her early morning rituals.
The coffee hisses like a steam engine come to take her from night to morning. Mug in hand she turns on a light in the living room and pulls her journal out from under a sofa cushion. The blank page beckons and she feels overwhelmed with the possibility. She can write about God and faith and how she hopes to find them someday. Milk. She can write about the passion and exhaustion of motherhood. Apple juice. She can write about her changing body. Cheese sticks. There are juice cups on the windowsill and a basket of clean laundry by her feet. She is suddenly afraid that they are out of Frosted Cheerios.
The bathroom fan whirrs on and she hears Joe start the shower. Tommy’s face appears white and moonlike at the edge of her circle of light. She’s gotten no farther than cheese sticks, but she calls him close. Closing her eyes she can smell the scents of a three year old. Baby Magic Soap, yesterday’s grape Popsicle, sand, sleep, earwax. He smells like possibilities.
The jarring jangle of the phone startles both and she dumps him from her lap.
“Is Joe there please? I need to speak to him.” The woman’s voice is edgy, urgent. Six a.m. A crisis at the lab?
“One second.” The house feels invaded. Her instincts for danger have been honed since becoming a mother. This person isn’t supposed to be calling, and she knows it.
“Joe?” Annie opens the bathroom door but can’t see him for the steam. “There’s someone — woman — on the phone for you.” He sticks his head out of the shower and there is a distinct deer-in-the-headlights look in his eyes.
He holds the phone and hunches his shoulders, walking away from Annie. He is suddenly in the middle of a conversation. It is not a telemarketer or an old friend from the East Coast who has forgotten the time change. This is intimacy, the dispensing of the need for pleasantries, small talk. His voice is sharp and impatient.
Annie knows in a wordless way that there is a relationship between these two that is not simple. She knows it in her soul the way she hopes to know faith someday. Her blood surges to her skin and she is dizzy with adrenaline. She goes to the front door for air and sees a car running by the curb, headlights catching the mist, the woman’s face lit up by the glow of a street light, her black hair hanging like a curtain, a cellphone against her ear. Annie slams the door.
Joe walks by her to put the phone down and goes back to the bathroom.
“What was that?” Her voice is high and unpleasant.
“Listen, Annie, it’s nothing. She’s nothing.” The hand holding the razor is trembling. There, he can’t even lie and it’s all passing between them, the words behind the words; this is intimacy, too.
“My God, what do you mean?” Annie slaps him, her arm a thing she watches, and the foam on his face sprays outward. Tommy is crying. Elise stumbles from her room and the baby wheezes over the monitor.
“It’s ok guys, Mommy’s just mad at Daddy,” Joe focuses on them, leading them to the TV, his eyes skirting Annie like she is a burning sun. His beautiful jade green eyes, she thinks.
Two dark splotches grow on her gray T-shirt; she’s leaking. The bedroom looks like a foreign country and she stands in the middle of the faded oriental, a hand-me-down from Joe’s parents, forgetting why she is there. The smell of Edge and Old Spice snakes in and the door closes. His face, just shaved and with a red blotch from her palm, swings into her field of vision. The etched ropy muscles in his arms spring up when he reaches his hands to cup her face.
“Annie. Just hear me.” Minty toothpaste smell washes over her. “You’re going berserk for no reason.”
A headache, nauseating, is gathering force in the base of her skull, sending webs of pain to her scalp.
“Instincts.” She pulls back and where his fingers were burns. She crawls under the quilt. There is silence in the room, silence like after a great horror, people staring where a house used to be, now a smoldering heap. Then she hears the slow roll of his dresser- drawers. Boxers size 36. Crew-neck undershirts. These things she knows. She makes a hole for her eyes and watches his fingers deftly knot his tie. She has admired this little act of manliness for years without learning how to do it.
He touches her leg through the quilt.
“Annie, it’s not what you think. It didn’t go as far as you — ”
Annie lurches up and pummels his chest. “Shut up, shut up! Something happened? You said it! I didn’t!”
“But not what you’re imagining… oh my god, it’s a mess,” he falters and puts his face in his hands and this frightens her more than the phone call. Why can’t he lie to her?
“I need you out of here. Go to your sister’s or something. I can’t believe it — I hate you.”
The children need breakfast and clothes and to be taken places and somehow Annie does it. Children, a gift.
Later, at nap, Annie stands in the middle of the living room. Joe is everywhere she looks; a book about the ascent of Everest on the coffee table, earphones dangling from his keyboard, flannel pajamas under the pillow, a Phillips screwdriver on the floor next to an ambulance in need of batteries. These are clues, she thinks, clues to him, but it makes no sense, she gets no picture. She’s known him thirteen years. She prided herself on noticing details and she has let herself down completely.
She goes to the bedroom, like someone in a movie. In a pair of pants on the floor she finds pennies, a washer, Wint-O-Green lifesavers. The simple pine furniture they bought when just married has become the resting place of their lives. The pictures, a black and white of Joe cradling newborn Elise, a self-timer photo of all five of them on the beach at Discovery Park last summer wearing matching fleeces. Stacks of books on childrearing. A pamphlet on vasectomies. Buttons from Joe’s work shirts and a gold button from a dressy pair of Annie’s pants that are still too tight. Coins, safety pins, scented candles from City People’s.
She opens his underwear and sock drawer and runs her fingers through, looking. He sweeps his receipts off the top of the bureau each night into the open drawer. Turkey sandwich at the University of Washington Cafeteria on January 14, $3.75. AAA batteries, 2% milk and wipes, QFC on Feb. 9, $11.43. Nothing surprising except the volume of paper he keeps. She used to find it touching, somehow, his inability to part even with these meaningless scraps of paper. Now, she sees it differently. No sale is ever final.
Her stomach churns at night. She stares hard at the insides of her closed eyelids. She sees snowflakes and little shapes like fleur-de-lis. Once, when she was maybe ten, her mother gave her a gold fleur-de-lis pin. It was a prize for being the one who always found her mother’s mislaid glasses. Annie could find anything. It was like her mother’s love made earthbound. She finds it in the bottom of her jewelry box and pins it now to her flannel nightgown. She feels as if someone has stitched her hands and feet to the mattress and stuck a thousand pins in her heart.
The next morning she can see Joe’s blue Honda Civic on the street. He slumps in his seat, peeking out from a newspaper, looking like a repo man, a fool. A fool in that silly striped hat Annie had knitted him their first winter together. Her milky breasts and Charlie’s wails make her drop the curtain.
She nurses in the semidarkness of early morning, feeling Charlie pull at her, feeling everything inside move. When had they lost each other? Silences, gaps in intimacy, these are just the burdens of young parents, not red flags. She remembers him whispering a few months before when they were making love, “That was unexpected.” His voice was full of awe, and she was surprised that her little variation on a theme had moved him. The unexpected. Is that what he missed and longed for? Elise and Tommy stumble out, wiping their eyes and lean on either side of her. The clock on the mantle ticks. A car starts.
Annie doesn’t answer the phone when it rings in those next few days. Joe leaves messages. Her sister leaves messages. Joe’s voice changes, from soothing, sorry to frustrated. One message says, “You have no right to judge without the facts. It goes both ways, you know!” What does, she wonders? He is a chemist, data matters and leads to conclusions. Elise answers once and talks to him; but in response to Elise’s pleas, Annie goes into the bathroom.
On Friday, three days after everything had begun — or ended — the doorbell rings early. Annie panics. They are in pajamas still and she pushes the children behind her and opens the door a crack. It is Celia.
Her long gray hair is swept into an untidy bun; Annie always imagines birds nesting in there. She wears a blue workshirt with flowers embroidered on the lapels and cuffs, worn blue jeans, LL Bean gum boots, and a big blue apron, pockets filled with trowels and spades and other garden tools.
“Annie! So sorry to disturb this early, but, well two things — ” she puffs, catching her breath after the stairs.
“Good morning, Celia. We’re not dressed but — ”
“No, no. I’ve been noticing — old busy body me — your kitchen light isn’t on at its usual time. Makes me worry. And Joe? I’ve seen him in his car?”
“We’re fine. His car? No, no… he’s away…” Annie aches to lay her head on Celia’s soft shoulder.
Celia looks hard at Annie. Her face is soft, sinking downward with age, but her eyes are delphinium blue, with just a hint of clouds, early cataracts, gathering at the edges.
“Three kids. How do you do it? Exhausts me just to imagine. Well, the other thing I came over for is — ta da!” She holds out a garden-gloved hand with a bag full of bulbs. “I ordered a hundred tulips and daffodils for you, just like last year.” Celia plants 500 bulbs each year in her lush garden; Annie envies the riches and riot next door but doesn’t know if it is in her to do the same.
“Oh you shouldn’t have! The ones I planted last year, they’ll come back up, won’t they?”
“Some bulbs come back year after year, but many don’t so you need to plant new ones if you want that spring color.”
“I didn’t know. Thanks,” Annie holds out her hand, “you’re thoughtful.”
“Well, Alfred will be wondering where his morning tea is, poor man!” She turns and eases down the stairs. Annie wonders how she can go off with a smile to where her dying husbands waits.
A dozen roses arrive that day. The note says, Your turn to call me.
Annie finds herself scrubbing her new ivory colored Kohler sink over and over. She squirts cleaning fluids on the soft colored enamel, on the shiny chrome fixtures. Making it spotless. The phone rings now when she’s at the sink, but it won’t be Joe. She’s freezing even though her hands are in the hot suds. Elise grabs it. Kate. Sisters always know when there’s trouble.
“I’ve left you tons of messages. What’s up? The last time you didn’t answer the phone or call back was when you miscarried. So?” She has always been direct where Annie hasn’t.
Annie turns the water louder, “What?”
“What’s that gushing? Turn it off, Annie. Are you ok?”
“No, Kate. I’m not ok.” She puts her hand over the phone and tells Elise to go play.
“Oh, tell me, Annie.”
“I just don’t know. It’s Joe and he’s gone outside the… bounds… so to speak.” She can’t say affair; it is too awful. Too black and white.
Annie looks out her kitchen window, hands in the hot water, shoulder pressing the phone to her ear. Through her window now she sees Celia standing with one hand on the nape of her husband’s neck and the other holding a towel in front of his face as he coughs into it. Annie is stunned by the tenderness she sees, but it also looks like Celia could press the towel to her husband’s face and just as easily smother him.
“… slept with someone?” Kate is saying.
“I’m afraid to ask. If I know then I’ll see it.”
“When the hell did he have time? When you were folding his socks and feeding his children and making his dinner?” Kate’s indignation makes her feel weak. Her emotions feel fused, stuck, nothing boils to the surface.
Annie’s head buzzes and she turns the water back up and sprays the sink.
She has dreams that night. She is watching Joe and the Woman make love, and she is enjoying it. She likes seeing Joe, new all over again. She admires this woman who can do this to her husband. She wants to feel it, too. When Annie wakes up she feels sick when the flood of her dreams comes back to her. But she feels envy at the passion.
Saturday is rainy. The children are pent up and whiney. Annie makes chocolate chip cookies with them and yells at Tommy for dropping an egg on the floor and then she eats half the batter. The day creeps along.
She puts all three children in the bath after dinner and Tommy asks for food coloring. The bath is a brilliant blue and the bubbles are like sea foam. Charlie sits in his little bath chair so he won’t topple and slaps the water in toothless delight. Tommy and Elise put on goggles and pretend to be deep-sea divers. They are so beautiful. So funny. So in the moment. Annie wants to open the door and call out to Joe, “Come look.” Annie thinks of calling her mother, but she won’t appreciate it the same way.
After the children are in bed, Annie pours herself a large glass of Chardonnay and wanders into the living room. Rain slashes against the picture window. The dark used to hold promise and peace, now it holds secrets. “Joe, Joe,” she whispers, as if saying his name enough times will tell her what to do. “I hate you.” She tries it out. “Come home; don’t do it again,” she whispers. Like a mountain climber, trying to find a hold for her fingers, she will know it when she finds it.
His messages on the machine, his notes in the mailbox confuse her. He is sorry. He wants to tell her. She has no right to judge. It goes both ways. He’ll wait. Annie can’t make sense of it. He was her love and her life and knew how to make her laugh by blowing on the back of her knees, and now this. When had he become a person with secrets and longings completely apart, a person who would take risks that might ruin her? She swigs her wine.
The phone rings. Annie’s hand holding the glass shakes and she sloshes some wine. She won’t answer.
“Oh, hello,” she hears Celia’s voice over the machine, “did you know that the weatherman says frost tonight? Maybe even snow! The bulbs should be planted. I’ll be out in my garden with a light on to try to get them in. Just thought you’d want to know, dear.”
Annie looks out at the wind- and rain-whipped night. Those damn bulbs. Annie peers through her dining room window. Yes, there is a spotlight wavering around in Celia’s backyard. She is out there with a big yellow rain slicker and a headlamp.
The brown paper bag bulges just inside the front door. Annie puts on Joe’s cavernous blue poncho and slips her feet into rubber boots. She turns on the baby monitor and hooks her end onto her belt. She goes out the back door with the bag and is struck by the iciness of the rain, like little needles. In the shed she finds work gloves and a trowel. The seesaw that Joe built for Elise when she was two leans against the wall. He’d push it down with a hand and she would laugh and laugh.
Down on her knees she digs in the muddy, rocky soil of the flowerbed. In the blank patches she shoves in the bulbs, her face slick and burning with the frozen rain. She digs her holes quickly, the dirt flies, and she almost laughs. She’s crazy. She hammers the earth with the tip of her trowel when the ground won’t give. What was so wrong with me, Annie wonders? Aren’t I sexy and beautiful and kind and funny? The great cedars wave in the storm and the rain slices sideways and Annie cries great, loud, tearless sobs.
“Annie, Annie!” The voice is gentle and crooning, almost like the hoot of an owl. Celia’s face appears to sit atop the fence separating their yards, her headlamp turned to the side. Behind her, on the deck, is Alfred, dressed also in a yellow slicker and a safari hat. He hangs onto the railing looking for all the world as if the great gusts of wind will blow his frail frame skyward. In his other hand he holds a thermos. Celia’s kind, moonlike face draws Annie near. She reaches over and touches Annie’s face with a warm, ungloved hand. Alfred, now down, uncaps the black and red thermos and hands Celia a steaming cup.
“Drink this, now, dear.” She hands to Annie the cup filled with thick, whiskey- laced coffee and Annie drinks deeply. She says nothing, for that is all that is required of her. Alfred stands behind Celia, his hand resting on her shoulder.
Inside she draws a scalding bath, as hot as she can stand it. She has a desire to burn everything away and find out what is at the core. Marriage is about power and she just never knew it. But it is not just about the power each has, but the power they give each other. The image of Celia’s hand on the nape of her husband’s neck and the other hand in front of his face with a towel frightens her. It won’t go away. Celia could have smothered him or snapped his neck. He must have known that. But he let himself be held that way. And she stood there, stroking him and catching the sputum that he coughed out. When you let yourself love and be loved, you bequeath people the power to wound you, too. The hardest thing of all, she thinks, feeling her ears fill with hot water and the most burning of tears — finally — is having faith, letting go. Alfred just let go. She cries into the hotness of the bath until it is cool.
With just a towel about her, Annie goes to the cabinet and pulls out a box of photos. Photos that have never made it into albums. She opens the enveloped marked Puerto Vallarta, 1994. Joe took her there after her first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. She felt like lying in the hot sand staring up at the sky. Joe urged her to parasail with him. She watched him go, frightened he’d never return. Exhilarated, he ran back to her. She’d been so disappointing on this vacation, she felt compelled to do it for him. In scanty English she received her instructions, when to run, how to land and then she signed her life away and was off. The pictures show her face — the uncertainty, the terror, the awe, finally the joy as she is suspended in the air, in the deep blue above the deep blue totally without control. She flips the photos fast and watches herself suspended above the earth freefalling. Giving herself up to it. She holds the pictures and pulls a blanket over her and waits for morning.
She calls Joe Sunday morning, when the night has lifted.
“Hello?” He answers on the first ring as if he is sitting by the phone at his sister’s house.
“Oh, God, Annie. Finally. I’ve got to tell you.”
“No. You listen to me. I have hated you this week. You have done something,… crushed something in me and brought distrust into our marriage. I have never been this angry in my life.”
“I love you, Annie,” his voice pulses through the wires.
“Joe. I’m talking. I’ve decided. I don’t want to know about it. I don’t want to know who, why, where, how far. Nothing. Don’t burden me with anymore. And don’t ask me to forgive you, not yet.”
“And what about us?” He gives her power.
“Well, you’ve got to come back.”
“It’s this huge thing between us but you won’t let me tell you or apologize-”
“Stop! Your punishment is not to tell. I’ll always wonder. But we’ve got three kids, a home, two bookshelves full of albums of how happy we are and plane tickets to visit my parents for Christmas. We just go on. The kids are getting up.”
Time is on Annie’s side; the night had been cold but the ground hadn’t frozen. She bundles the children up against the gray chill, props Charlie in his stroller, and finishes planting the bulbs. Celia comes out on her deck in a purple wool sweater and looks over the fence at Elise turning cartwheels in her red mittens and Tommy digging with a backhoe.
“I love watching your family at play, Annie.”
“We’re going to get a present!” Elise singsongs to Celia. “Daddy’s been away but he’s coming home and he always brings me a new stuffed animal.”
“I’m so very glad. Tommy, I could use you and your backhoe over here,” and she waves at her flowerbeds. “Last night was a false alarm, but they promise snow tonight and I smell it. And I must have 150 bulbs still to go.”
“We’ll be over after we get these last few bulbs in, Celia. My turn to help you.”
That night Annie goes to bed first and presses herself against the wall. She feels as if she is perched on the edge of a well. Joe comes and stands at the door.
“I should sleep on the couch.”
She turns her head slightly toward him, “You sleep here. This is where we sleep in this house.” She bunches her pillow toward the wall again and rolls to face it, leaving him looking at her shoulder blades, bird wings he used to call them.
Annie stares at the wall. His every breath comes at her magnified one hundred times. She feels as if she might burst with the tension. The vision of the other woman pushes in at the edges of Annie’s mind. She knows he is not asleep and it feels insane to be this close but so far away. The warmth from his body starts to seep toward her. She wants to tell him that it will all be unexpected.
Joe rustles in the sheets and she feels his hand lift over and hover above her head. He drops it softly on her hair and holds it there; then he tentatively caresses her head and rubs the muscles in her neck. She holds onto the edge of the bed; then she reaches for his hand, where it rests on her neck, and holds on tight.