It goes without saying that to open a book well, you have to give readers something in the world to invest in. Cook introduces us right away to Ronnie, a woman who by the second paragraph alone, offers a story of heartbreak and loss. In time we discover that a car accident claimed the lives of Ronnie's husband and two sons, leaving her beat up physically, but destroyed emotionally. The accident is a year past, and Ronnie has to put her life back together while living with her sister and re-enrolling into college, but there is a side of her that perceives herself to be part bird: skittish and eager to fly away and never look back. All of Ronnie's complexities and their origins are laid bare from the start, it seems, and so there is a tug born of sympathy that calls us to learn more, to see her overcome.
What She Knows
She was the bird, of that she was certain, flying straight through the night and into the morning, flying black and glossy, swooping over the lake, skimming along the surface, the spray in her face. She can still feel the wings, the air, the lift of the wind; she can still taste the hollow-boned breath of flight, the flesh of it, the very birdness of herself, of what she had been, standing at the window now, looking out into the rain, the memory of it, the sureness she’d felt, something she couldn’t share, couldn’t tell anyone, not even Ricki.
She stares out into the rain, remembering bits and pieces from the last year, the year of loss-- that’s what they’d told her, the year of loss, the year of cracking, straight down the middle, an axe in her brain, a cleaving, a falling away from everything she’d ever known, falling through nothing, away from the afternoon of Boyd in her head, of Ricki cradling her body on the bare bed, the afternoon of a thousand voices swirling, come to take her away to a place of softness, a place of pieces all flying up toward the sun, a place of disintegration.
She reaches out and touches the window, cold, without bars. She touches it, leans forward, blows out her breath, making a cloud shape of steam. She draws a tiny smiling face, one eye winking, and then she remembers herself again, rights herself. I am Ronnie. I am alive. I have no wings and no husband either, no twins in the backseat of the car. I am not a bird or a weightless thing. I am solid and heavy. She thinks of how her psychiatrist told her she was real, solid, of how she’d held her hand against her chest, “Here,” she’d said. “Here is your heart and inside it is your soul, the weight of you, of everything you are,” and she’d heard, she’d listened and she began to get better, to believe that she could live, that she should. She’d sat down with Ricki and Mother and drunk the pink tea again, folded her hands together and breathed a long breath, saying, “Yes, yes I see it now. I’m coming back to you,” and she hadn’t even cried, not one tear, though later, in her bed, away from everyone, she dreamed of flying again, flying up and up, over an impossibly tall mountain, and she thought in her dream, this isn’t possible, this isn’t real, and she woke up and cried until she went back to sleep, bereft and alone in a place of her own choosing, a place she was only beginning to realize, beginning to know, a quiet place she couldn’t even have guessed at three years ago, a time before that day, a time before the beginning of the end.
That day. That day she woke up and looked at Boyd sleeping on the pillow beside her, a little string of saliva dripping from his half-opened mouth. He was on his back and snoring slightly, snoring in a deep sleep, six-thirty, the brightness of early morning just tinting the room. She reached to touch his cheek.
It’s Saturday, a family day. Soon we’ll all be up, sitting around the table. Today I’ll cook the buckwheat pancakes, today we’ll splash maple syrup onto the yellow-checked cloth, syrup mixed with the twins’ milk, and butter, too, the butter that Mother bought at the farmer’s market. She lifted Boyd’s arm and snuggled into his shoulder, reaching her hand into the slit of his boxers. He mumbled something unintelligible, then squeezed her to him, waking enough to harden in her hand and the morning turned into early fall sex under the red comforter, early fall, a bit of chill on her bare shoulders and don’t look now but Felix is running down the hall, Felix with an action figure clutched in each hand. She willed him to run past, willed him into the TV room at the end of the hall, willed herself to come quickly because he might come trotting back into their room and slip into the bed, snuggling between them, his little feet cold, nails digging into her shins. She willed the moment to last, Boyd still inside her. Don’t pull out, not yet, just give me one more minute, one more second, and then it was over and he mumbled “I love you” and went back to sleep and she turned on her side, staring through the open doorway into the hall. She could hear the Ninja Turtles and she knew Felix’s left thumb was in his mouth, something he only did when he wasn’t paying attention, something big boys never do.
She got up from the bed and went to pee, fingering the lavender soap in its wooden dish, the same lavender soap her grandmother had used to wash her feet at the backdoor, those wrinkled hands, the almost-purple suds, careful between the toes because it tickles and that’s when she’d squeal. She ran her hand along the perfect seams of the white tile, reached to touch the fluff of the yellow towels, bright sunshine, sunflowers, a sleek tan beside the pool, freshly-shaved legs. Next summer we’ll go to the beach, Virginia Beach. We’ll gather shark’s teeth and scallop shells, we’ll ride the kiddie rides at Busch Gardens, a huge fluff of cotton candy, sticky faces, blue and orange snow cones.
She wandered into the twins’ room. Frank was still tucked in, snoring slightly, just like Boyd. He lay on his left side, curled up like a baby, still just a baby really, four years old, the two of them, only a little while ago, only a breath ago the two of them struggling inside her, beating up her ribs, full heads of hair stirring up her heartburn. I had them on a Thursday afternoon, twins, just like me and Ricki, a Thursday afternoon, just yesterday, just a moment ago. She reached and touched the brown curl on Frank’s forehead, felt him quiver, a little dimple. I should let him sleep, but she saw his slight smile, his eyes flutter-closed and knew he was awake. She sat down on the bed, stroked his cheek until he opened his eyes. “Want to help me make pancakes?”
He sat up and nodded, rubbed both eyes with his fists, that gesture, that thing he does, a tug on my heart. My little boy. She ruffled his hair. “Go get Felix,” and he was off, sliding down the hall in his pajama feet, Scooby Doo, Shaggy, the Mystery Machine, things from her own childhood, born again with these boys, these two peas, green and fresh.
That day everything was normal, not a thing out of place. She squeezed the oranges for juice, she swiped a napkin across Felix’s mouth. Boyd laughed out loud when Frank spilled his milk, just a little left in his bright orange cup, the one with the Hamburglar with his creepy leer. Boyd laughed and made a mask with his hands, peeked through and laughed again. He sopped the milk up with a kitchen towel, a wedding present those towels, a matching set, green and black, a painted cup of coffee, swirls of steam rising into the air. Boyd rubbed the towel across Frank’s syrupy face and gathered him up, set him on his knee, rocky horse, and then Felix was on the other knee and a father bounced his sons up and down and back and forth and a mother loaded the dishwasher and hummed softly the same lullaby she’d sung the night before, “Hush little baby, don’t say a word.”
That day was perfect and midmorning they were packing everyone into the car, driving over to Mother’s house, Mother’s soft hands against the boys’ faces, her fingers running through their hair, her grandsons. We’ll be back in a couple of hours. We’re getting groceries, we’re going to the fish market, and then tonight, we’ll drop the boys off at Ricki’s and it’ll be just the two of us, my strapless red dress and your rented tux, your rented tux, black tie, broad shoulders, just like Gregory Peck. And that southern accent, To Kill A Mocking Bird, you with your impeccable manners and grace, your hands reaching for your newborn sons, reaching up to grab the extra key from the ledge above the front door. Your broad hands grasping a football in the backyard, a touch game, all the men in the neighborhood over for a barbeque. But tonight it’ll be just us two.
I’m driving my car so you can drink more than two whiskies. I’m the D.D. and you can drink and I’ll drive us home, but first I’ll drive us all to Ricki’s. The boys will stand on the steps and wave goodbye. They’re spending the night there to give us an evening alone. First I’ll drive us there, then it’ll be just us too, my red dress, flutes of Champagne, my pulse skipping when I look across the room and see you moving toward me, moving toward me in a moment that lasts forever, that day.
We are getting into the car, the boys are fighting over a toy truck that neither of them really wants. We snap them into their car seats. I can feel the red ribs of the steering wheel, slick in my hands; I am turning left on Northbrook, right on Willow. I am driving straight into forever.
She was broken when they lifted her from the car, her soul, her body, all the pieces of her heart. She was screaming out for Boyd, for Felix and Frank, her ears full of the terrible screeching, the crush of metal, the press of glass against her face and the sound of her own voice.
For two whole years she struggled, she put out one foot, then the other, and walked in a straight line. She slept in the bedroom in Ricki’s apartment, woke up and made coffee and showered and washed her shorn hair. She felt the moving blades of herself, her disappearing self, walking from the bedroom to the kitchen to the bathroom to the street for a newspaper, the news entering her, a house fire, another missing blonde girl, the bad weather and the school bond issue. She read and digested and understood nothing, didn’t understand how quickly she was disappearing.
That was a year ago, shaking on the bed in Ricki’s arms, on the bed she’d shared with Boyd, in the afternoon full of Boyd’s voice in her ear, right beside her, inside her. She’d gone to the house for the first time since the accident, had gone because she had to, because she felt she must. She went and walked in the door and then her babies were there, crying for her arms, and Boyd was in the yard tying up the rose bushes in the strong wind, such a whistling wind blowing straight through her as she went through the twins’ clothes, sorting them into bags for Goodwill, doing what she should do, what she must do, and then the flying apart, her brain coming undone and Ricki was there, spooning her, holding her tight, and then tighter, until there was nothing at all, nothing but a bird in her head, the sense of flying into a plate glass window, over and over, the glossy blackness as she watched, just watched, in wonder, in a calm detachment, what they called catatonia, what “they” called it, but really it was a looking through, a staring into, into the center, into the dark core of herself, and that’s why she couldn’t move, that’s why she couldn’t speak, why the inside was all she needed, the staring, the quiet knowing.
And then one day, after a moment, after just a split second really, she “came to.” She opened herself, stretched out her hands and poured herself a pink cup of water, the very best drink of water she’d ever had, she who was so thirsty from flying, straight through the night and into the morning of herself smiling at the nurse and asking what was wrong. “What’s wrong?” she asked again and the nurse rushed from the room and a flurry ensued and soon Ricki was there, and Mother, tears in their eyes, Mother’s I’m-so-sorry’s over and over again, I’m-so-sorry-about-the-sheets, I’m-so-sorry, and she turned to her and laughed, a sane laugh, and said “Boyd always said you were good looking for an old broad,” and she laughed again, coming back to the real world just ten months ago.
She was under for two months, under and flying, a sort of joy she didn’t even try to explain, not even to Ricki, knowing they’d question her, question her sanity, a woman who flies. And maybe she really was crazy. She had bottles of the pills, felt so lucky her tongue wasn’t thrusting out, over and over again. She’d seen that once, at a mental hospital. She’d gone there with her mother to visit a crazy cousin, who wasn’t so crazy as all that, no, she’d just needed a break, a slight crack across her soul. Now Ronnie understood why, exactly why someone, a woman like her, would need a break with white hospital corners, with paper cups of pills, with the day room and the jigsaw puzzles and the overripe fruit.
Now she reaches and touches the window again, just for a moment, so cold outside. It’s December, Christmas just a week away. I hope it will snow, I hope I’ll survive. And then, in January, I’ll be a student again, I’ll get another shot on the dream I gave up to have two babies, all at once, a dream I gave up to marry Boyd.
She gets up from the sofa and walks into the kitchen, the university brochure on the counter, glossy, a shining new tomorrow. She picks up the smiling girl, a diploma clutched in her well-manicured fingers, all hope for the future, all bliss. But really just a model, an actor, someone paid to look happy and fulfilled. She shakes a cigarette out of the pack and walks out on the deck into the crisp air. She shivers while she lights up. Ricki won’t let her smoke inside anymore, not anymore, “You’re not crazy anymore,” she’d said. So.
It was a cloudy January day, sure to snow by nightfall. Ronnie was bundled into two thick wool sweaters, one hers, one Ricki’s, and a new, striped muffler her mother had given her for Christmas, something borrowed, something new, a new day, on her way to classes, after so long. But she was only twenty-eight, so young really. That’s what everybody said, why you’re so young no one will be able to tell you from the rest of the students. Why just this morning she’d talked with Callie on the phone, her cousin who lived down in North Carolina, her cousin who’d given her a little pep talk. “Don’t worry,” she’d said, “you’ll be finer than fine. You always loved school. This is just what you need,” and she thought the same thing, just what I need, just what I need as she crossed the street, turned into the wind coming off the lake. She could feel her cheeks reddening, stinging, little bits of rain falling on her head. She pulled her cap further down over her ears, adjusted the strap of her book bag, hiked it up. Back to school.
She would be a junior, finishing up her degree in English Literature, and her first class on this first day of the rest of her life would be Shakespeare, not her favorite, no, not such great shakes as all that. She preferred the Romantic poets, a cliché she knew, but still. Or the British poets between the wars, that ball turret gunner being hosed out of the plane. All that blood and barbed wire suited her, suited what she thought of as the wasteland inside, the break in her life, what had been happiness and what had become something else, something empty and real, something more than a little exciting now that she was entering it, this new phase of her life. I wonder if I’ll fall in love again. I wonder if I’ll sleep with someone, maybe before the year is out. That’s what Boyd would want, what he told me once, that if anything should happen to him, I should move on, get on with my life. She stopped walking for a minute, remembering Boyd, leaning over her in bed, his eyes full of her. I would want you to be happy, he was saying, right at that moment, right in her ear full of wind off the lake. I would want you to be happy without me. She stood still, listening to the past, listening and tasting and feeling his breath in her ear, then she adjusted her book bag again and walked on until she came to the campus, felt a rush of yes, yes, this is it, this is the beginning.
The Shakespeare classroom was empty when she got there, thirty minutes until nine, early, ready, on the edge of everything, pacing between her desk and the wall, hands stuffed into her pockets, then swinging at her sides. She wondered if she had hat hair, decided to visit the restroom, then decided her hair was okay, her spiky short hair, so unlike her long hair that Boyd used to twist around his throat. I’m the last duchess he’d say, and she’d laugh, “the wrong poem, you silly, the wrong poem.” She sat with her mind full of him, loud with his voice against her ears, then students started walking into the room and she stopped thinking of the past, stopped hearing his voice, feeling the tug of her long hair in his fingers, smelling her hair burning in the sink after she’d cut it off, one afternoon that now seemed a thousand years ago, the difference between then and now, who she was, how happy she was. And now.
Back to the beginning, starting over, starting again. Mother had told her just last night that she would be all right, all right. “You can do anything,” she’d said and Ronnie almost believed her, felt the stir of fingers in her chest, excitement, back to school. She’d stood in her bedroom, running her hands along the spines of her new books, her new binders. Back to school, just twenty-eight, so young really. The professor walked into the room, said “good morning,” set his briefcase on the table and Ronnie heard it make contact, the sound too large for the moment, something to tell her therapist about, these loud, loud sounds. Remember to breathe, to blow it out on the breath, to watch it move up and away. There goes all your doubt, there goes all your fear. She thought of Ricki speaking the soothing words to her, her arms around her. She said “here”when her name was called and then she saw Ricki’s face, exactly like her face, high cheekbones, white, white skin, green eyes, her mother’s nose, its snobbish air, what her father had called high-class, a truly high-class nose. It was a not quite beautiful face, a face just to the left of perfect, a little too severe, a little too sharp around the cheeks, green eyes a little too slanted, a little too much attitude, too much challenge in the long cool stare. Ricki was smiling at her, telling her to keep her chin up, tossing her head that way she does, grinning a half grin of encouragement, whispering it’s okay, Bug, it’s all okay. Ronnie smiled back at her, then she looked around the room at the other students. Just twenty-eight, she looked just like them, there was no difference except that she could still feel it, the lift of the wind, the flap of wings, the stir of feathers, she could still feel it while she listened to the professor, all about the Globe Theatre, all about Stratford upon Avon, Elizabethan. First they’d read Twelfth Night, first a comedy, then on to Henry IV, the history plays. They’d move through to the tragedies, to Hamlet and Macbeth. She sat and listened and understood while hearing the scuttle of claws on a branch, the feel and sound of it, something to never tell her therapist, who she’d see later today, who would tell her, again, that she needed different pills, that her mind was bent in on itself, perching at an odd angle. But she wouldn’t take the pills, not those pills, not the ones that softened and soothed her into the texture of oatmeal, that made her unrecognizable, the ones that made her face in the mirror a stranger. No, she’d get through this.
When her first class was over she went to the next class, creative writing, and she wrote quickly in her fluid hand about Christmas, what she could remember--she wrote of cedar trees and star-shaped cookies, of Scotch tape and silver foil, cutting unsalted butter into the sifted white flour, stirring in brown sugar, cutting the strips of shortbread, and then she read and shared with the others gathered in a circle. She participated and felt almost well, almost at ease, almost normal, a normal sort of bird woman, a hybrid of woman, of loss and longing, now that her life had started, so much longing pressing against her face. Three years since they’d died, three years and she was moving through the rest of her life and when she read her piece she listened to the sound of her voice, listened intently, wondering if they could see the truth about her, wondering if they could smell it on her, the dank fluff of feathers, the truth of her, the truth of madness. When she finished reading a couple of students hummed to themselves, as if contemplating her cedar trees and shortbread, and the professor put his hands together, his long, black fingers like a tent, like camping, the air swirling with wood smoke, the sharp smell of charcoal and lighter fluid, the backyard barbeque, lighter fluid dousing her hair in the sink, enough to make it burn quickly, in a flash.
She thought all this in a split second and then she heard the professor say, “Yes, yes, that’s just what I meant,” and she wondered what he was referring to. She really looked at him then, at his bald head, not quite shiny, his angular features and black turtleneck sweater. He was a poet of some note and she wondered if his dick was as black as his face, if he was black all over, all through, black as coal, her favorite color of skin. She wondered if she’d be a cliché, sleeping with her creative writing professor and then she could feel Boyd inside her, moving in and out and she spread her legs a little and started to tremble because surely this wasn’t normal, surely birds shouldn’t sleep with professors and surely her head was spinning out of control and she excused herself and went out into the hall, her hand against her chest where the bird was clawing her, where the bird was inside and outside, where the bird was her and was also flying down the hallway, swooping again and again to claw at her chest. Too much, too much, the refrain in her head, too much and just breathe, just walk down the hallway and back and breathe it out, and so she did, down the hallway to the water fountain, a cool sip, then another, and by the time she straightened herself, she felt clear again, the bird had flown out the window and Boyd was a memory, at the back of her mind, the back eye of the stove where Ricki kept the bright yellow kettle, on the back burner, something to think of at home, when she was alone.
She walked down the hall, back to the classroom, and sat in her seat, a little flushed, a little afraid, a little more alive than when she’d walked out the door, every moment shedding a layer of skin, the onion stripping down to its core, the cook crying into the pot. And she knew it, could feel herself integrating, what her therapist called it, what all the books called it, integration, a pulling together, bringing together all the parts of her, the Boyd parts, the parts of Felix and Frank superimposed on her brain, the parts of her wedding day and the car-wrecked broken bones of her. All of her pieces gathered together, a sharpness in her chest, a feeling of pulling a scab when the flesh underneath is ready, is strong enough and brightly pink enough to hold its own. By the time the class was finished, she felt clear enough to speak to a couple of the students, to smile at the professor, to jot down yes, yes, in her notebook, to pick up her things, composed, sure, ready.
After class she had an hour before she needed to leave to see her therapist and so she sat on a stone bench under a tree because it was suddenly unexpectedly warm, a little above freezing, the late morning sun bright through the brooding clouds, and she felt just like the girl in the college brochure, just like a student, sitting and drawing a face in her journal, in the margin of her Christmas piece, a little face with glasses and one eyebrow raised, a drawing exercise from long ago, making the brows sweep across the forehead, a wave of hairiness, just like her grandfather from too long ago, her grandfather and his red-striped peppermints, his cherry blend tobacco, his study with his bound law briefs and high-backed leather chairs. She was just five when she sat in one of those chairs and he popped a peppermint into her mouth and chucked her chin. She could still feel her legs, high above the floor, her white tights and black, patent leather shoes, her lacy yellow dress. Just five years old and the twins were there, too, Felix and Frank, with their perfect fingers and toes that she counted over and over the day they were born, this little piggy, this little piggy. She could feel their mouths tugging on her sore breasts, so tired she could barely get out of bed. Time to feed them again, Ronnie. I know you’re sleepy but it’s time to feed them again and then Boyd was there with both of them tucked into his arms, two little boys, as alike as pea pods, tugging at her almost-bleeding nipples. That week they went to the store and bought plastic nipple guards, something to help, but Felix wouldn’t nurse through them, refused to clamp down, and so she gritted her teeth and got through it and after another week, it stopped hurting. She thinks of all this and feels herself centering, solid. She finishes the face and smudges the edges with her fingers, remembering when her mother taught her to draw faces, to blend and make shadows, to draw swirls instead of harsh lines. A shadow fell across her notebook and she looked up, her finger poised over the page.
“Hi.” It was one of the girls from the creative writing class. Ronnie thought for a second, trying to remember her name, then she said, “Hi” back and closed her notebook.
“Hi, I’m Lacey, from creative writing. I was wondering if we could exchange phone numbers, in case we miss class or something.”
For just a moment she felt unsure, uncertain what to do with herself, as if giving out her phone number was more of a commitment than she could easily make. Then she smiled and said, “Sure, okay,” and sat back down and opened her notebook to a blank page. “My name’s Ronnie. And I haven’t been to school in years.” She closed her mouth tight then. I don’t know this person, I don’t know this January morning, this cloudy sky. I’m a bird, black and glossy. I could peck out this girl’s eyes, I could fly away across the lake. Then she remembered herself, remembered that she wasn’t being watched, not that closely, remembered that this girl was just being friendly. I used to have friends, used to go out for coffee, for drinks, for a light lunch. It’s not a big deal, I’ve prepared for this, prepared to make friends.
She looked at Lacey and smiled, said, “I’m afraid I talk too much,” and then felt even worse, but Lacey said, “Oh. How long have you been out of school? I’m a senior. This is my first creative writing workshop. Do you think the professor’s hot? He sleeps with students, lots of them. My best friend had an affair with him last semester, but she still didn’t get an A.”
“Oh. That’s interesting. I’ve always liked bald men,” she said, though it wasn’t true, though she hadn’t liked bald men before, that only now, only today had she looked at a bald man and also wondered what his penis was like, wondered about his skin, his smell. Too long without sex, I’ve gone too long without being touched, without fucking. Too long without fucking and anybody would be crazy, obsessive. Ricki says not fucking makes people nuts. Maybe she’s right.
Lacey was saying that she didn’t like bald men, that she wasn’t very interested in poetry either, but that she needed a three-hundred-level class, something to fill in a blank; this class had fit her schedule and she’d heard it was an easy A, or at least an easy B. She gave Ronnie her phone number and email address, then suggested that they have lunch sometime soon before she waved to another friend and was off, trotting across the lawn saying, ”Oh my GOD,” and hugging another girl as blonde as herself. Ronnie thought of both of them as girls, not that much younger than she, but a world of difference, a whole lifetime spreading out behind her, a whole life that started when she was twenty and stopped, just stopped three years ago. They are all dead, all of them and here I am, here goes the rest of my life. She looked down at the piece of paper in her hand, Lacey’s phone number and Laceyelle84@yahoo.com. She knew she didn’t like Lacey, not even a little bit, and she hoped she never had to talk on the phone with her, never had to share French fries or tater tots with this shallow, fluffy, fluffy girl. She spent the rest of her time jotting down notes in her journal, ideas for poems, impressions, and the whole time she wrote she didn’t think once of how afraid she’d been just a little while before.
That afternoon she sat with her therapist, saying again that she wouldn’t take the slobbery pills, saying again that she’d get through it.
“But your life could be so much easier. Your days seem so burdened right now, with unwanted thoughts. The pills could control that.”
Ronnie was afraid, could clearly remember the sloth, the wet pillows in the afternoon. “You said when I started therapy that I didn’t have to take that drug if I didn’t want to. I’m fine with the pills I’m on. I’ll get through this. Today was a good day.”
“You’re right, Ronnie. You don’t have to take the anti-psychotic. But I honestly think it would help you. We could try a lower dose this time. But tell me about today. How was it good?”
And so she talked, explained about walking down the hall to the water fountain, keeping all the angles of bird to herself, never saying a thing about thoughts of flying. She had never told anyone about that, not even Ricki. She knew better, she knew lots of things and could stop up her mouth, a black wing in her throat, could stop before giving herself away. She looked out the therapist’s window and smiled a smile that was almost a secret, then she spoke about her classes, about Lacey and her silly email address, about hearing Boyd’s voice by the lake, about the twins still superimposed on her face, but nothing about birds or birdsong or the birds struggling outside the window. The wind was whistling, blowing straight through her, all the while she was holding it together, all the while her wings were fluttering, stirring against her shoulders, her mind’s eye focused on the lake far below her. If I fly straight through the afternoon and into tomorrow, I’ll make it to Nebraska. If I caw loud enough, everything will be blotted out. But it was just another Monday. It was time for refills, time for a new prescription.
“There are other anti-psychotics you could try. Not all of them will affect you the same way. I wish you’d reconsider.”
“I know, you told me that before. I know it might be different. But don’t you think I’m doing better?”
“I think you’re doing much better. But I know how hard it is. It could be easier.”
“Maybe I don’t want it to be easier. Maybe it’s supposed to be hard. It’s only been three years. I’ve heard that it takes eight years to get over someone’s death. Eight years.” And there’s a bird flying toward the ceiling, a bird full of black, a crow that knows everything, a crow full of the last three years, full of sheets and memories and the faces of two perfect little boys.
“True. But not everyone has such a difficult time.”
“I know. I know. But, well.” She stopped speaking, unable, unwilling to say anything else. She stood up, folded her wings, took her prescriptions and went, walked home slowly, stopping at the drugstore on the way. While she waited for her pills, she thought of buying new nail polish, thought about polishing her nails, thought of Ricki and her sitting in their bedroom, just thirteen, painting their toenails and then their father walked in and said “You girls have the loveliest legs. You get that from your mother,” and they both smiled at each other, just the way they often did and Ronnie knew just what she looked like smiling because there was Ricki smiling back at her and they were so alike that even their toes couldn’t be told apart, but on the inside. On the inside of her white leg, she sliced with a winking razor and Ricki tried it, too, the two of them cutting in their bathroom, tiny little play cuts, something to prove how brave they were and now she’s fingering the bottles of polish, lined up like teeth, like the knives in the kitchen clinging to a band of magnet above the white tile counter. She’s picking up the blood red, the plum wine, the crystal sea, and she sees herself in the mirror, a slice of face, one eye, one half of mouth, a mouth full of Boyd’s face pressing against hers in the night bed, the nightlight streaming yellow beside the door, Boyd pressing into her, moving slowly. She cradles a bottle of ruby red, thinking of party dresses and slippers and then she’s just four years old, afraid of the flying monkeys, afraid of cycling witches and sharp castle turrets like the edges of jigsaw puzzles and her father picks her up and carries her to the bedroom, her head lolling on his shoulder, a dream of forests and gnomes already entering her head when he lays her down, tucks her in, golden leaves, silver bracelets.
She places the bottle of polish back on the shelf and moves down to the lipsticks, thinking of her mother and her endless bottles of lotions, the tubs of cold cream, the lipstick she let Ricki and Ronnie try on, just seven years old, bright mauves and pinks splashed across their mouths, dotted onto their cheeks, and then there’s Felix and Frank, rosy mouthed and smiling, not dead after all, alive and well, reaching out their hands for the snow cones, blue and orange, and she feels for a moment like all the breath in the world will never be enough to sustain her through the moment of her sons and their sour milk necks after a day at Disney World, her sons alive, alive, and then she sees her fingers picking up a tube of midnight mist and she knows, again, she knows that yes, it really happened but she never saw their coffins, never ran her hands along those white surfaces, short coffins for her four year old sons, crushed in her sports car, what she insisted on, an old, cherry-red, 1967 Mustang convertible, what she had to have. No air bags. No shoulder straps. No early warning systems, just a crashing sound and glass everywhere, a sensation of flying, of slow motion, and then trapped, flying over and over into a plate glass window, three years gone by on a held breath. She puts the tube of lipstick back into its holder, stands still, just staring at the pinks and reds, the almost purples, staring into the past, into the future of her sons walking toward her after their college graduation, both of them so tall, and Frank just told them he’s gay and it’s something she’s just not ready to hear, Frank with his long, tapering piano fingers and then Felix, such a jock, just like his father, hands made for holding balls and bats and rackets. Both of them walking toward her now, the sheen of their robes in the sun, their hats flung into the air and away. Then from a long way away she heard someone say Ronnie Parks and she wondered who that was before she realized oh yes, that’s me. My order is ready, and she walked back to the pharmacy.
“Do you have any questions about your medication?”
“Any questions. Do you have any questions about your medication?”
“Oh. No. Everything’s fine. I’m fine.”
“Okay then. If you’ll just sign here.” And she signed and was out on the street, her pills tucked away inside her book bag slung over her shoulder, the snow sprinkling the air and her upturned face. She loved the snow, the cold air swirling white. She breathed in deeply, smiling at Felix and Frank, her boys all grown up, and she gathers them both in an embrace and Boyd is laughing beside them, handshakes all around, handshakes and back thumps for his grown-up boys and they’re all going out to dinner to celebrate, thick T-bones and garlic mashed potatoes and Ricki and Mother are there and soon they’ll be leaving home for good, leaving home and never coming back, back to their white polished coffins, square, cold boxes she never touched because she couldn’t be there. She was in the hospital, lumber in her leg, traction, barely alive for months. She missed the sound of the dirt hitting the tops of their souls, clods falling and thumping. She missed the sound and Ricki told her it sounded like death, that was all, it sounded like the end of the world.
She walked down the street quickly then, eager for home, eager to sip on some tea, eager to remove her shoes, to chop up the fresh vegetables for a stir fry. She checked the mail on the way in, five letters for Ricki, nothing for her, a flyer from a local Chinese restaurant, a packet of coupons for lucky shoppers. She skipped up the stairs, unlocked the door and there was Ricki.
“Hey. You’re home already.”
“Yep. And I’ve brought home two good manuscripts. How was your first day? Want to share a bottle of wine?”
Ronnie said “good” and “yes,” on the way into her bedroom. She slung her bag onto the bed, slipped off her heavy shoes, looked out the window. It had begun to snow in earnest, the whole world as white as gauze, white as it should have been at Christmas, but the trees were only bare then and she’d sat the whole evening bouncing the boys on her knees, she bounced them and listened to them laughing, shrill little boy laughs full of Santa and fresh shortbread. She’d sat all day by the window, hoping for snow, but only a steady wind was blowing and when her velvet head ruffled she kept perfectly still. Not a word. Not a single word.
Now she strips off her sweaters and jeans, slips into grey sweats and thick red socks. Her hair is every which way, just the way she likes it. She looks into the mirror and smiles, stretches out her arms and flaps them, almost laughs, hears Ricki calling out, asking again about her day. She flies down the hall to the kitchen. “It was fine. Good. I met a few people. Went to the shrinkette. Picked up my pills. I have a reading assignment and a short paper to write. So what are these books you brought home?”
“Probably nothing. You know how I get all excited that finally, finally there’s a real book, but. Want stir fry for dinner? Or order in?”
“I’ll chop up the vegetables. I’ll do that if you’ll chop up the chicken.” Ronnie hated to handle raw chicken, remembering a day long, long ago when she’d gone with her family to visit an uncle and aunt who lived way out in the country on a farm. Her uncle had wrung a chicken’s neck right in front of them, when their parents were inside the house, said they should know where their meat came from. Ricki had been fascinated, but Ronnie’d run into the house and clung to her father, crying, afraid of the long, bloody neck.
“Sure. I’ll do the chicken,” Ricki said, her long hair shining and flowing down her back. She pulled the pack of chicken from the fridge. She chattered about her day, complained about a coworker, bemoaned the five pounds she’d gained recently, chopped expertly and quickly, then tossed the chicken into the already hot pan. “There,” she said. “All done.”
Ronnie was chopping up onions and peppers, yellow squash. She felt bad for a minute for eating out of season, thought of organic farming and co-ops and natural food sources, thought of starving children, of mashing up bananas for Felix and Frank, but then bananas were always in season. She sighed a long sigh, tossed the onions and peppers in the pan, stirred everything around and salted it. She let it cook for a few minutes before adding the squash, julienned. She couldn’t stand thick slices of squash, how they held the water, a splashing sensation in the mouth like biting into melon, her mother’s hands scooping orange melon into balls, making her special punch with rainbow sherbet and champagne, melon balls and shaved ice. She thought of the anti-psychotic, how otherworldly it had made her feel, how lonely and tired and she thought of an aunt who’d lost her mind back in the fifties, something that no one in the family had understood, something that had become part of the family lore. “Back when Aunt Clair lost her mind.” It was a saying they had, a way of referring to the Eisenhower years, a way of referring to a simpler time. It was years and years before Ronnie and Ricki were born, but she thought of it often, thought of her aunt lost in delusions, a dream of herself as a little girl. Ronnie felt her bird self moving against the air, thought of what her family would say, of what Mother would do if she knew just how crazy she really was. That’s all there is to it. You really are crazy, crazy as a loon and there’s not enough space in this world for you to fly free.
She stirred and stirred and when it was ready she poured the food onto two blue plates with yellow bands around the rim, Picasso colors. She and Ricki sat at the kitchen table and ate, almost silently, Ricki reading one of the manuscripts she’d brought home from work, Ronnie scanning Twelfth Night and humming to herself. A bottle of Shiraz was between them, two large glasses a piece, and then she was walking down the hall to her room, her head beginning to buzz from the wine and the evening, the coming night when Boyd would whisper in her ear. Her therapist had told her again that she should stop it, that she shouldn’t let herself sink into the past, but every night she was in his arms, his breath in her hair, his words falling through her disordered mind until she fell asleep.