Chapter Two

 

MY CELL PHONE RANG next to my head and woke me up early.  I was miserable, my head swollen with alcohol, the spot behind my eyes tender and on fire. I checked the phone.  It was a video from my sister Jenny.  She was standing sideways in front of a mirror, her stomach puffed out, completely pregnant.  My heart stopped right there in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Then she pulled out a pillow, showing me the little bump left behind, and started laughing.

Hilarious, I texted her.  She should take that act on the road.  She would make millions.

She texted back: When are you coming home?

I did not reply because I did not have an answer.  If I was coming home at all.  My phone buzzed again.  Jenny had sent me a picture of our garbage can, a mountain of empty beer cans sprouting out of the top of it.  Oh lord, I thought.  Our mother’s been drinking more than ever.  Still it was not enough for me to turn around home. I could not say one way or the other what I was going to do next, except keep on driving.

Outside the roads were still silent, and the sun rimmed the curtains of the motel room shyly. For a minute I could have been back on the farm, waiting for the rooster to let us know it was time to get up and shake off the night and embrace the day.  Every morning, I would beat the rooster awake.  But I would let him go first into the day. I did not want to hurt his feelings.  There was no one around for miles in the mornings, except me and my husband and the rooster and all his chicken wives.  All of us kept close together on that farm.  We were not going anywhere.

Then I remembered: my husband had cast me out.  No crow to cradle me now.  There was a roof over my head, but still I was homeless.  The last nine months I had lived in that house it had been a construction zone. Thomas could not wait to spend his daddy’s money on renovations once he died. It was the first thing he did after we moved in, call up his high school buddies and put them to work. Work, if you want to call it that.  They were sucking Thomas dry just like they sucked those cans of Budweiser all day long, making noises every hour or so like they were lifting something heavy.   Tall, strong men strutting and braying like that cock in the morning, Thomas letting them because they were big men now.  They had always been bigger than Thomas. It was not hard.

But it was the place I called home.  My marital home.  And every bed I had slept in since I would wake up in the night and feel like I was sliding off. I held on to the bed in the motel room in Cheyenne.  I grabbed the sheets and pinched the end of the mattress.  I was homeless and loveless and all alone in the world.

I allowed myself one more minute of feeling sorry for myself, and then I snapped up out of bed.  There was no more time for that misery business. I had to get rolling. There was nothing for me there except a place to hide.

I showered off the smoke from last night; I could smell it rising in the steam around me.  Then I threw away the clothes I had worn. I could not imagine carrying them next to my other clothes. The smoke would infect everything.  I almost threw up, thinking about the smoke and Pete and Arnold, the crack of heads together, the fall of the ax, the blood on the snow. I felt a clenching deep inside me.  If that woman had not opened the door just then, those two could have ended up thrashing around on top of me.   Heavy and mean.  Father and son taking turns.  It was just plain wrong how pushy they had been at the end there.  It was all rushing through my brain.

I closed the door behind me and walked toward to the lobby to drop off the key, my shoes crunching on the fresh snow left behind from last night’s storm.  I was the only one up at the motel.  I could see bloodstains mixed in with the snow in front of the bar.  I pushed the key through a slot in the front door of the lobby.  There was a tiny squeak and then it snapped shut.

I need to be quieter and calmer, I thought.  For years I was silent and hidden away on that farm, tending to Thomas’s needs, and now I could not shut myself up.  There I was, getting into trouble with strangers, yelling in the middle of the night.  What was I doing? I needed to be careful.  There might be people looking for me. I began to feel uncomfortable and thick with guilt, even though I did not believe I had done anything wrong.  I was worried I was still drunk, but I got in the truck anyway.  I cursed myself, and then I started the engine.

Route 80 was still pretty messed up from the weather.  Great hills of snow were pushed to the sides like silent guards standing watch.  I prayed for safe passage. The land started to change as I drove further west. It was raining and the snow had melted some and I could see that the land was curvier, more luscious.  Everything in Nebraska was flat and remained the same, except for the corn, growing, growing, and then gone again.  I had never considered the earth could be any other way. Why would I need to think about that? I was never leaving.

The furthest I had ever been away was during my honeymoon, six years past already.  I remember how I could not wait to go back to our hometown the second we arrived.  We went to a resort town on a lake in Minnesota because that is where my parents went on their honeymoon and they were paying the bills.  They sat us down at the kitchen table the night of our engagement barbecue in the backyard.  My dad handed the envelope with the tickets to my mother, who slid them across the kitchen table toward us.  “We had some magical nights there,” she said dryly.  “It’s good for swimming,” said my dad.  He put his hand on my mother’s shoulder, and she turned her eyes at it and stared dully, until he pulled it back again.

If it had been left up to me and Thomas we probably would have stayed home and snuggled up in bed for a week straight, watching the teevee, renting movies, me making popcorn and grilled cheese sandwiches.  Easy stuff we could eat in bed. We were married already for so long! That was what I wanted to say to my folks, to be bold.  Since we were kids. I was not even sure we needed a wedding.  That seemed like extra to me. But you do not look a gift horse in the mouth, Thomas whispered in my ear later, after they handed us the envelope. And it would be our only chance to see the world.  Because Thomas had only ever promised to show me his love.

The resort itself was like a pioneer village.  Everyone had their own little log cabins, all of them circling a lake like we were settlers keeping each other company.  We had the honeymoon suite so there were fuzzy slippers and bathrobes waiting for us and chocolate roses and a bottle of champagne in the kitchen.

“Ooh la la,” said Thomas, and he popped a rose in his mouth.  He sucked on it for a second, then chewed and swallowed it. He did a little dance over to me and said, “Come here and I’ll give you a chocolate kiss.”  We put our arms around each other and I let him put his tongue deep into my mouth.  It tasted like chocolate but also the peanuts we had been snacking on all day during the drive. I liked the saltiness but it was not what I was expecting.  I guess he could tell.  He pulled back from me. I could see how raw he was.  I decided not to say no to him for the rest of the seven days and six nights we were there.  It was our honeymoon. Moonie on her honeymoon.  It made me smile.

Later that night he pushed into me over and over again and I gasped out of love and he said, “Don’t lie,” and I said, “I ain’t lying, it’s good to be next to you, it makes me feel good to have our bodies naked together,” and he pushed in harder, banged up against me. I knew I would be bruised in the morning. He did it like that sometimes when he was drunk.  But I let it go, I let him go at it, because I wanted him to be happy.

The next morning, Thomas and I walked down the waterfront to see how we were going to kill the next seven days. I saw a waterslide in the distance, and Thomas pointed out the kayaks on the lake.  That was the first time I realized that it was a strange place for us to go on our honeymoon, if we were going somewhere at all.  We grew up in a state that was practically dry. What did we care about the water?  Sure I liked the community pool in the summertime, but that was all we could do at the resort, roll around in the hay at night, and play in the water during the day.  And I think there was supposed to be some hiking trails but I was not much of a walker anymore.  I had my truck by then. I just liked rattling along the cornfields.  There were no cornfields here.  There were thick green trees and the water and the air smelled nice, murky and earthy at the same time, but I did not know what to do with myself for even a second.

Thomas had the answer though.  He took my hand and pulled me along to a dock where there were sailboats floating at the end, all tied up next to each other.

“We should rent one of these,” he said.  He looked out at the lake, at another sailboat skimming the water like a bird.  “We should go sailing.”

“Thomas Madison I’ve known you practically my whole life and you do not know how to sail,” I said, and I laughed.

He looked at me, and he squinted his eyes. There I had gone and done it, pissed him off, on the first real day of our honeymoon.

“I do too know how to sail. My dad taught me. He was in the Coast Guard, and he knew how, and he took me sailing a few times.  It was when he and mom were still together. We went on vacation.”  He looked dreamy for a second.  “In Wisconsin.”

“All right I guess I did not know that part,” I mumbled.

“Aw, it’s ok honey,” he said.  He put his arm around me.  “Don’t feel bad you don’t know it all yet.  You will.”  He steered me toward the man renting the sailboats, a rough, red-faced man, with gristly grey hair covering his chin and racing up his cheeks.  Half burned by the sun, half burned by age.  He wore a yellow t-shirt that said, “Mr. Sunny Day Sailboats” in blue letters.

Thomas and Mr. Sunny Day set to negotiating about the boats.  I watched Thomas closely; I was finding myself mesmerized by him the whole trip.  We never left our town ever, barely talked to people we did not know.  Maybe a few times a year I would meet someone new.  Making friends did not seem important to me.  We had everything we needed.  But still this was fascinating to me, seeing Thomas out in the world.  How he treated people, at first glance, without knowing anything about someone.  Me, I just let him do the talking. I was so young then, I thought that was the way. And it was easier, to let someone take care of you.

So there he was, barking at Mr. Sunny Day, who was asking Thomas what he knew about sailing.

“I trained with my father, a former soldier in the U.S. Coast Guard,” he said.  He had his arms crossed in front of him and his short legs were spread squat. “Since I was a kid I been on the water.”

The man backed down a little bit, pulled his body back, kicked the ground with his foot.  “Well I didn’t know that, now did I?” he said.  He smiled.  “Not everyone knows how to handle a boat.”

“Oh yea,” said Thomas.  “I’m a master tacker.”

“All right then,” said Mr. Sunny Day.  He and Thomas walked off together and started looking at boats.  There was some paperwork he handed to Thomas to sign. Thomas did not read it, just signed it.  I shrugged. I twirled my wedding ring around my finger.  I squinted out at the lake.  Two teenage boys paddled next to each other in kayaks.  They were laughing.  They wore life vests, so I knew they were safe. It looked calm enough out there on the water, a nice place to be a married couple.  The water was a dark purple blue and there were all kinds of living things buzzing in and around it.  I slapped a mosquito off me.  I wondered how deep the water was. I wondered if it was possible to drown if our sailboat sunk.  Not that my husband would sink it. Because he had been sailing since he had been a child.  I had just heard him say it so I knew it had to be true.

Thomas and the man shook hands and Thomas motioned me over.  Mr. Sunny Day handed us both life vests, and we walked toward the boat we would be renting.  The sailboat was a bright fake yellow, stretching to look like sunshine.  “We are newlyweds,” I told Mr. Sunny Day, even though he had not asked.

“Are you now,” he said.  He held my arm as I got on the boat.  Thomas was already untying the sail.  “Just like I remember,” he said. I ducked my head down and slid in facing Thomas who was standing knee deep and then waist high in the water as he pushed us further out.

“So we’ll see you around noon then,” said Mr. Sunny Day.  “Come in and get yourself a nice lunch up at the lodge.  Do yourself a favor and try their Black Angus burgers.  Big as your head.”

But Thomas was not hearing a thing.  He was already off dreaming on the water, it was just a matter of catching the right wind.  I sat and looked at him, my belly and breasts pressed up against the life vest.  It was hard to breathe for a second. Mr. Sunny Day stood on the dock watching us, his hands on his hips, a weird grin on his face. His legs were skinny and hairless at the top, I noticed that. And his shorts were too short for a man his age. Out on the water the two boys kayaking started splashing each other with their paddles until one of them yelled, “Quit it!”

Thomas got on the boat and it rocked a bit. I thought for sure we were going down. I closed my eyes and sucked in my breath and prayed for my husband to be strong, out on the water, out in the world.  And then I opened my eyes and we were sailing!  We were floating so free, me and him, Moonie and Thomas, stars, sun, moon, water, mountain, trees, bees, birds, him and me.

We floated around for an hour like that, not saying much, just beaming at each other. I allowed myself to lie back and take off my life vest and t-shirt, my new pink-striped bikini underneath.  Thomas had not seen it yet and his eyes got big and he let out a dirty little laugh.   My hair was up in a ponytail and Thomas told me to take it down so I did, and the wind blew it back around me. I felt famous.

“You are gorgeous,” said Thomas.

“Thanks sailor,” I said.

We made our way around the lake and looked at all the other log cabins.  We waved to some little kids messing around at the shore, building little castles out of empty beer cans.  Near the quieter end I could see a deer standing at the edge of some trees.  I got excited. I had seen deer before but never while sitting on a yellow sailboat being steered by my new husband.  I was having a moment.

“I am having a moment,” I said to Thomas.

“Me too,” said Thomas.  He was grinning and steering and being in charge of the trip.  I thought we could make it our new hobby, someday when we could afford our own sailboat.  Maybe we could come back here every year on our anniversary. It was not the worst thing in the world, leaving home every so often.  And the way the air felt on that lake, brushing all over my bare skin.  The way Thomas looked at me.  It was love.  I was not yet twenty-one years old.

As we sailed back toward the dock, Mr. Sunny Day, and all his sailboats, I felt calm.  I closed my eyes and listened to the rush of the water, the smooth lap against the bottom of the boat. Thomas was sailing faster than before. I could hear the wind beating against the sail.  We were in a race with something. I sat up and looked at Thomas, his face set like stone, his short legs flexing and folding as he wrestled with the sail.  He had gotten a crew cut for the wedding, so he even looked like a sailor.  The wind picked up a little more and Thomas howled at it.  He was just a boy becoming a man. That is all he was trying to be, was a man.

I wanted to reach out toward him and touch his face and hands and chest, but he was busy with the sail.  I looked back toward the shore.  We were coming up fast.

“Thomas,” I said.  “Slow it down.”

“I’m trying,” he said.

Mr. Sunny Day was on the dock, waving his arms at us.  Then as he saw how fast we were coming in, he sped up his arms, as if waving them faster could somehow make us go slower.  Then he started motioning us to the right, away from the dock.  I felt the tickle of a laugh in my throat. I mean it was funny, wasn’t it?  That we were about to fuck up this boat.  And then I got afraid real fast.

“Tommy should I jump?”  I do not know why I called him “Tommy” just then.  I guess I felt like I was a little girl and he was a little boy.

“I don’t know,” said Thomas.  He was frantically grabbing at the sail, trying to turn it any direction than the one it was going in, but the sail was not having it.  We raced toward the dock. I was frozen: stay or jump, where should I go? What should I do?  I should stay with Thomas. I will stay with my husband.

The boat hit the dock in three places, on the front, then it bounced back and hit the side and the sail, which came tumbling down almost on top of Mr. Sunny Day, but he ran off at the last minute. The sound the body of the boat made was kind of awesome.  It was a serious crunch, and it rippled through the whole boat, and then it stopped, everything stopped. The sail was dangling over our heads, the boat was dented in pretty serious in the front, and Thomas and I were just sitting there wondering what to do next.  I could hear Mr. Sunny Day cursing from the land.

“Motherfucker,” he said.  “My motherfucking boat.”

There was some arguing after that and I walked back to the cabin by myself because I did not want to see my new husband be crushed like a stubborn hard-backed beetle under Mr. Sunny Day’s foot, over and over until he was broken down.  I sat in the living room of our log cabin and looked up all around at the painting of the lakes on the walls, little price tags in the corners, the humming ceiling fan we had not minded the night before but now seemed louder than an airplane overhead, the well-worn quilt with blocks of stars, the chocolate roses, the empty bottle of champagne, and our suitcases, still halfway packed. I memorized my honeymoon suite because I knew we would be leaving before the day was done.  Out in the world, my husband crashed the first thing he touched.  But at home, he would be in control and we would be safe, and I wanted more than anything to be safe in my new husband’s arms.

Well we will just stay put then, I thought at the time.  And so we did.  Until now.

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JAMI ATTENBERG has written about sex, technology, design, graphic novels, books, television, and urban life for The New York Times, Print, New York, Nylon, Jane, Double X, The Huffington Post, Salon, and others. Her fiction has been published by Nerve, Five Chapters, Smokelong Quarterly, 3: AM Magazine, and Spork. She recently appeared in the anthologies Sex for America, Future Misbehavior, Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone, and Love Is a Four-Letter Word: True Stories of Breakups, Bad Relationships, and Broken Hearts. She also wrote Wicked: The Musical: A Pop-up Compendium. Her debut collection of stories, Instant Love, was published by Crown/Shaye Areheart Books in June 2006. The Kept Man was published by Riverhead Books in January 2008, and is now available in paperback. A third book, The Melting Season, was published by Riverhead Books in January 2010. Visit her at www.jamiattenberg.com .

2 responses to “The Melting Season: An Excerpt”

  1. Mary says:

    Mmm Thomas sounds terrifyingly like someone I used to know. Poor Moonie.

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