In autumn her parents had to hire professional painters because the hallway had not been redone since the Kennedy administration and when she came home and lurched into the wall, the blood on her hand soaked right into that parched layer of Navaho white. The rug in the front hall was ruined as well, as she sunk down grabbing between her legs.
It turned out Eliza had been “dating” all summer in secret, a football player, third string. They were an unanticipated pairing. She was quiet and generally a good student, so everyone assumed the football player had forced her or talked her into it. He had a bully reputation as far back as grade school when he had pulled girls’ ponytails. Back then, he’d hung on despite the tears and kicks, like an infant, as if he had no knowledge of pain or mercy. This old tenacity did not resurface when his parents decided to send him away to a private high school in the town where his older brother lived. The football player left without saying goodbye. Without promises. Eliza cried because he let go — in the first place and so easily. It was not easy for her. She was broken.
Which made her interesting and nearly popular. Her peers wanted to know what “it” was like —whatever “it” was. Sex or love or rape. Did she think she was going to die when she saw that blood? Did it really just happen or did she use a coat hangar in the girls’ locker room? Inquiring minds in tight denim wanted to know.
Quickly she did not live up to this new reputation. There were no scenes, no drunken scenes or drug-induced scenes. There was no crying unexpectedly in public with new heavy makeup running down her face. Though everyone supposed she would turn into a slut or at least someone easy, she did not do that either. Instead she remained consistently heartbroken, and rather boring because of it. New friends lost interest. Old friends lost patience.
Ben, like many, knew the gossip based on Eliza’s secrets. In January the sight of her in advanced chemistry lab made him remember a party from the summer. He had gotten to that party early to help with the music. KC and the Sunshine Band played, followed by the Commodores, followed by Patti Smith. The stereo was inside the house, the speakers on the window ledges pressed against the screens. Once the party got started, he stood at the end of the driveway, because everyone was in the detached garage.
That changed in 10 minutes. The garage faced the street and once the door was opened to accommodate the crowd, the neighbors could see the illicit keg. The keg, lodged in its blue tub filled with ice, was lugged to the backyard. The crowd followed it in waves—an ocean tugged by the gravity of a beer moon—until Eliza was revealed.
She sat on a tall wooden stool that was stained like the concrete floor of the garage Her friend standing near gestured and fidgeted, indicating her desire to move with the crowd, but Eliza remained resolutely seated, arms and legs crossed. Her silver sandals reflected the light. The long, thin heels were like mirrors. She had hooked both heels over the rungs of the stool, the crossed leg over a top rung, the other over a lower rung. It was dangerous. If someone drunk stumbled back into the garage, she might be knocked over. Or she might forget about her heels and try to stand suddenly. Either way, she would hit the concrete floor hard. Ben watched her before he was pulled by the gravity of the beer moon to the backyard softened by a daily sprinkling. He had waited while the slow dance played and no one did. He had wanted to help her up.
In advanced chemistry, she sat on a tall stool again, same crossed arms, same expression. Resolute precariousness. Or maybe it was a determined fragility. Months ago he had waited for her to fall and now he realized she had. She had hit hard. Though at this moment she dropped clear fluid from an eye dropper into a test tube, she was also a heap on the ground. He walked up and made a comment about the precipitate in the test tube being a lovely snow.
Their wedding was in July, a small gathering with champagne and appetizers afterward. His mother, drunk on ceremony and flushed with champagne so that she matched her pink chiffon dress, pulled him to her and whispered that he was a nice boy, a good man, and his wife would come to love him.
She was the second person to say this to him.
His wife—bone thin, her cream-colored gown hanging off her hips, the hem ripped out where her heel had caught it, her own mother now saying something to her, telling her to stand straight, which she did—his wife. She would come to love him?
The thought had not occurred to him.
This wasn’t like him. In high school, he had stopped the teasing of the unfortunate, had asked the alone to sit with him and his friends at lunch. When his golden retriever brought him a tennis ball, he would stop whatever he was doing—gaping spark plugs, talking on the phone—and throw the soggy ball until the old dog feigned forgetfulness and wandered away. He was usually concerned with what others felt. But somehow his love for her superseded her feelings. The thought that she would come to love him made him slightly nervous or almost afraid—in the same way that a wonderfully sweet morsel can hurt the teeth. It was not a perfect marriage. He understood this but inside her felt it was enough—more than enough—that her happiness was his happiness.
Hence the trapeze. She had confessed that as a child she’d wanted to be a trapeze artist, then he was all for buying the worst house they looked at because of the perfect elm tree branch out back, a tire swing already in place. His best friend and his best friend’s father helped with the trapeze, with welding and finding parts for cheap, like the ropes, which were sailboat lines from an estate sale in the rich part of town. They assumed what could tie a big boat to shore could hold her in the air. On no particular occasion, he surprised her. The tire swing came down and the trapeze went up.
The polished wooden bar felt like velvet and hung five feet off the ground. She could reach it but could not hoist herself up. The first time he lifted her to the bar was momentous—her hands tender on his shoulders, his strength, their clumsiness, her gratitude. It was like the first time they made love only then he was grateful too.
She was not a natural. The width of the bar, the way the ropes were distant, made it very different than a swing at the park. With his encouragement (lean into it and they pull the ropes in at the circus), she slowly learned to gain momentum. She dangled by her knees and hands, then by her knees alone, her head like a pendulum swinging over the bright spring grass that later wore down into a stubble. Whenever she practiced, he stood near, as if he would catch her in time if she slipped. Perhaps she believed this. He did not. In his mind’s eye he saw her hit the ground and knew he would be there only in time to dress her wounds. Atta girl, he told her.
The two of them lived off sugar, and she’d gained no weight—he would know if she had— but sometimes when he lifted her to the bar, she felt heavier, as if something inside had changed, her bones maybe, blood returning to the marrow. Your wife will come to love you. On their anniversary he meant to buy her a pair of leather gymnastic gloves because her hands were getting rough from the trapeze bar, but instead he got her Fanny May chocolates, claiming that the paper for first year anniversary was the box.
The first present she gave him was a photo album with pictures of the two of them growing up on separate pages, pages of him, pages of her, then a page at the end with the two of them together on their wedding. For his second gift, she led him out into the backyard and he lifted her onto the trapeze. Before he could even begin to encourage her, she swung as high as she could and flipped herself down into a backbend. Swinging there like this everything important to him faced the ground—her face, her breasts, abdomen, pubis bone.
When did she learn this?
Her strained body folded up and she swung down and told him to wait. She returned lugging his new aluminum step ladder. A spare length of sailboat line was knotted to the top step so she could lower his ladder carefully to the ground. For her next trick, she slipped one foot under her, then raised herself up so that she was standing. She swung again, but not very high. He stood there dumbfounded, his mind wrapping itself around the obvious slowly.
You practiced on your own.
She swung down from the bar, strapped on her sandals, and bowed teetering on the uneven lawn. Those silver sandals with mirrory heels—they made her seem fragile in this world, but no one made her wear them, he realized. It was her choice. These were the kind of choices she made—the football player, this marriage, the trapeze.
He was not proud of her performance, and it was obvious. She apologized for being an idiot—it was her hobby after all, not his. Ben said he did like her tricks. Only what if something had happened when she practiced alone? What if he came home from work and found her unconscious. If her back was broken, if she was paralyzed and needed care for the rest of her life, he would have to hire someone to come in and how would he afford that?
That girl at the long-ago party—he had not really considered her pain when he imagined her hitting the concrete garage floor. Rather, her falling, her as a heap on the ground, had been something he desired because of the moment afterwards. He had wanted her more than he had wanted her love. He wasn’t sure why. To think “why” was like tossing pebbles at a lake of ice. The pebbles endless skipped on the surface. He did not have an answer to give himself. She did not seem to know what to do either. For a week, there were arguments over nothings, then they agreed that she should volunteer at the local hospital—where she would certainly catch diseases—and he should sign up for courses at the community college—so he could never be at home.
The hospital was only three blocks from their house, and she could walk or ride her bike. One Tuesday in the fall when rain threatened, he skipped class and picked her up. He had already unlocked her bike and tied the trunk shut, using the spare rope that she had used on the aluminum ladder. As they drove away, he waved to a nurse coming out the front door and explained that he’d met this nurse while he was waiting for her. The nurse had come outside to ask him if he was stealing the bike. He laughed telling his wife this.
The next week, on a day that was merely overcast, he was at the nurse’s feet. He removed his hand from the nurse’s foot and asked his wife if she would she like a pair of shoes like these. On the way home, he thought of those heavy shoes, the color of the nurse’s flesh and her freckles behind her pale nylons.
A bar by the railroad tracks was where the nurse and he had their first drink. He told her he took classes at the community college because he’d gotten married instead of going away to school like his friends. The nurse hated to hear about kids getting married so young, before they knew themselves. She was seven years older than him and therefore had the right to give him advice. Some girls got married just to get away from their parents, she said. Later, while standing beside her car, he chastised her for her worn treads, holding a penny between the front tire’s grooves.
Here comes Mister Heartbreaker, the nurse began to say first thing whenever she saw him. Old Love ‘em and Leave ‘em. His response was generally the same: Me, I’m a nice guy. He would then solicit the help of those near—Pamela the reception nurse, Frank the bartender. Tell her what a great guy I am. He and his nurse could banter like this endlessly. One evening at her studio apartment she whispered, You’ll break my heart.
Her bed was piled with pillows because it also served as her couch. She fell asleep with her mouth open, like a kid. He ached to see her like this, to think of her bed that had to be a couch and the kitchen so close he could almost reach out and touch the refrigerator. Something had to be done.
It was later than usual when he got home. Nothing was warming in the oven. He made himself pancakes and, while carrying his plate to the counter, dribbled syrup on the floor. His wife came in wearing her cotton nightgown. Because he’d made several trips to the frig, some of the syrup spots on the linoleum were fuzzy blue from the bottom of his socks. She got a sponge from the sink and knelt on the floor to clean the spots. He sat on the kitchen stool by the counter and chewed while watching the top of her head.
The day he left her, a big storm was predicted. He meant to pick her up at the hospital, but packing took longer than expected. She stood by the kitchen window, sleet melting in her hair and her face raw. He said that she had married him to escape her parents, then added kindly: I’ll always be your friend. If you need anything.
Her hand was against the cold window pane. She pressed the glass with a force that made her fingers turn white, but the steamy marks her skin left disappeared anyway.
No, she said. I married you because you were so—
Substitute another word. A good word, a bad one. You were so stupid. You were so kind. Except that wasn’t what she said.
I married you because you were so selfish.
Fine, right. It’s my fault. He left quickly and drove fast, though he knew he should be careful on the slick roads. At a stop sign, the car began to skid and he wrenched the wheel, then stopped and put the car in park.
An icy mist froze his windshield, blurring his view, the way tears might have. Now that he didn’t love her he found her easy to understand. She had tried true love with her football player and he had left her. She tried not being in love and that didn’t last either. If she had loved him at the start, he would not have needed to marry her so impetuously and everything might have been different.
Outside the car, large flakes suddenly began to sweep past in a rush of wind. The flakes clumped together like tatters of lace and flattened against his windshield. All day they had compared this storm to one that had happened years ago. During the other storm, ice had been followed by blizzard, and the electric lines had bowed down with a wet weight that hung on though wind blew the snow sideways. He could remember how he felt that day. If the electric lines broke, there would be no heat, nothing to eat but bread, no place to escape to with the snow piled on the streets. Looking out his bedroom window at the changed view—the hedge and the evergreen tree folding over, the lines of sidewalks and streets effaced—he saw his inability to do anything about all this, about electricity and food and this force of nature. But it wasn’t just that he was powerless. It was that there was this power in his world.
That girl in chemistry class. Drops had slipped from the eye dropper, clear fluid had disappeared into clear fluid, then suddenly, unexpectedly, precipitate formed. White flakes appeared and drifted down to the bottom of the test tube. A lovely snow. The road before him, which led to his nurse’s studio apartment, to the bed piled with pillows, the asphalt was already was covered, the center line gone.
She would be surprised to see him. Mister, what are you doing here? She would notice the suitcase in his hand, and when he told her what he had risked—the storm, his marriage—she would say, Mister, you must have misunderstood. Love is self-less. Self-less, she would say before taking his heavy coat from him and shaking off all the white.
Connie Zdenek lives outside of Chicago, Illinois, where she works in information technology and teaches yoga. Her first novel, near completion, deals with a hiker’s disappearance in Arizona.