Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

The Family Way

BY CHRISTINE KAISER BONASSO

 

1. First Response

Home from the pharmacy, my husband arranges the pregnancy tests atop the bathroom vanity table by accuracy. I sneak down the hallway and crawl back into bed.

Hours later, I bang kitchen cupboards and rattle utensils while Chris packs for our Montego Bay trip. He doesn’t ask why I polish flatware, vacuum dog hairs from the shag, and bleach coffee mugs rather than pack my toiletry bag. (I’m dodging the half-bath.) He stuffs cigars into socks, cushioning them for the flight.

Dusty stemware next catches my eye. I scrub glasses while through the torn window screen summer flings itself, a green, grass-wet June whose lusty sunlight makes me regret being elbow-deep in soap bubbles and possibly pregnant. No, we can’t have a baby. Our respective jobs leave scant time to bathe and feed ourselves, and Chris wants me to resign if I get pregnant. I’m not quitting.

In the midst of rinsing a goblet, I let go. It disappears beneath the suds, clinking. I towel off, grab my purse, and jangle my keys with anticipation.

“Where are you headed?” Chris says, breaking his silence.

“Out.”

“And where exactly is that?”

 

2.  Clearblue Easy

The summer I turned ten, my older brother and I practiced running away from home. While our parents raged below us, upstairs we crammed a flannel top sheet with extra underwear, his favorite comb, my best footed tights, a box of Nilla wafers. I seized our hobo bindle and slipped out the back door, but Pat threw open his bedroom window and soared, his T-shirt a red gash against the cloudless sky. Flying past our startled parents, he screamed with laughter then landed, thumping upon the leathery-leafed boxwoods.

We disappeared into the woodlands,  squabbling about tipping cows but reconciling over hypnotizing chickens, gliding from wood to wood and crossing a neighbor’s cornfield in between, not giving a good goddamn whether we returned by dark, and we rarely did.

Although it was the eighties, our solitary lifestyle in the sticks had vacuum-sealed us in 1942. Neither of us fretted about sex, nor did we give credence to the gossiping and grossly misinformed cranks that did. Your first time doesn’t count, they said. Sneeze afterward, squirt vinegar up there, don’t ever squirt vinegar up there. Instead, we relied upon nature’s bigheartedness, on treasures like wild blackberries and mulberries and crawdads hiding under half-submerged rocks. At night we skulked beneath wooden bridges shuddering with the weight of passing cars. Jumping traps set by illegal hunters, we heard hounds wrawl in the distance, rifle shots. We tramped the hilly roads and drying creek beds of our backwater Midwest, slapping away mosquitoes, happily enduring cuts and nettle stings, knocking on farmhouse doors in search of Mercurochrome.

We inherited this disappearing act from our maternal grandmother, who, in one old photo from Germany, is outfitted with a fishmonger’s apron and looks sixteen, her wavy hair buried beneath the carapace of a black gob hat. On break from gutting mackerel, she stands beside casks stacked like massive spools of thread, her brine-stained hands bandaged wrist-to-knuckle as protection from packing salt and ice. She squints at her hands, as if longing to cradle a book, while her elders, seated on barrels, play cards or knit. The hands, they don’t belong on her body. The skin puckers like an old woman’s.

On the wharf, she earned boat fare for the States. Here, she labored in the blueberry fields, then a piano factory, then an office, as a typist. When bored, she moved. Eventually, she married and tended four children, and for fifty years she checked my grandfather in and out of mental institutions and loved him despite his manic-depression, despite having to lock her toddlers in the spare bedroom to avoid ladder-back armchairs my grandfather threw, imagining he was Pagliaccio from the famous opera. Vesti la giubba, e la faccia in farina! He sang to her as the chair slammed against a wall, his magnificent tenor never cracking.

 

3. Equate

I have witnessed other marriage dances. In my parents’ kitchen, while my mother was blanching green beans, I announced my engagement to Chris.

My father grasped my mother at the waist. Whirling her around, he tangoed to the stereo’s music, vintage Streisand.

“You don’t bring me flowers,” he crooned, dipping her.

She quickly kissed the air near his cheek, straightened, and returned to the shriveled beans, bleached a pale green in imitation of her friends’ culinary technique, although they preferred to char food: frazzled zucchini bread, Sahara scrambled eggs, crispy fondue. The art of bad cooking, they’d counseled, took years to perfect but sure as hellfire would fend off a groper.

Winking, my father smoothed his sideburns, rolled down his weathered, plaid shirt cuffs, shuffled his feet like a boxer, and moved in for a kiss.

My mother pressed a colander against his chest, pushing him away. “Dave, cut it out. I. Said. Stop.”

He brushed his palms together, as if dusting them off. Muttering about changing the oil in his Chevy hardtop, he toed toward the garage.

Wasn’t it enough that he was trying to be charming now?

After dinner that night, my mother lay upon her bed’s chenille coverlet, her short, black curls unkempt, eyes haloed red. Around her fingers, she knotted and unknotted a tissue, fretting about my father, how they fought into the wee hours, how he puttered away evenings with the computer or his car.

I wanted to side with her. After all, my father could be cruel. As a child I’d felt my tailbone sting under his steel-toed boot. Long ago on a summer evening flush with moonlight and crickets, he’d lurched up the pebble driveway to whack Pat’s backside with a splintered two-by-four while my mother had watched from beside the house, arm lifted, as if waving them both goodbye. That was the night Pat ran away and never came back.

But I couldn’t sit at her bedside anymore, couldn’t let her chisel me into St. Joan and send me off to fight her unending marital holy war, or smother me with her voice, smooth as a doeskin glove, while she unwrapped old memories and warned me off nuptials and children. My own happiness made me impatient with others’ misery.

“After children,” she said, wagging the tissue at me, “a woman’s life is over.”

“Well, don’t go to bed mad,” I laughed. “Stay up and bicker with him.” My head lowered, I hotfooted toward the exit, slipped into my childhood room, and read until sunlight pinked the window.

I fell asleep with the memory of myself as a dirty-soled seven-year-old, when my grandmother sat at my bedside enchanting me with her kindermärchen, homespun fairy tales akin to “Hansel and Gretel” and “Cinderella.”

At the end, she patted my wrist then traced an ‘X’ on my palm. “I love you a bushel and a peck,” she said. “A bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.”

I was too young to ask how to bushel a marriage, how to hold together despite a thousand petty trespasses and, perhaps, one unplanned pregnancy. By the time I needed to ask her, she was gone.

 

4. Clear Choice

In the airplane lavatory, I unwrap the Equate pregnancy test. Afterward, I splash water on my face, elbow open the folding lavatory door, and plod back to my seat, staring at the sunrise erupting behind the Blue Mountains as we circle Sangster International. Only a handful of candy-colored beach umbrellas are sprinkled across the bay’s white beaches.

On the drive to the hotel, surrounded by lush bougainvillea-covered walls, Chris and I quibble. The cabbie unloads us at the curb, sighing. He’s well rid of us.

We loaf all day and eat a late dinner of ackee and saltfish on our balcony. Afterward, I come up behind Chris, spread my arms like wings, and lash them around his chest. Pinning him prevents me from looking at him.

“The pregnancy test was negative,” I say, longing for a test that predicts if a child will feel safe and loved in our home, despite my family history.

He doesn’t speak, just lounges and smokes his Romeo y Julieta down to a stub. His unbroken silence passes as acceptance, and eventually he stands to go inside. Until I turn him by the shoulders and see his crumpled face, I can pretend there was no other choice but to lie.

 

5. Clarity

The next evening, with the sun climbing down the sky, we snorkel in Montego Bay. In a dead man float, I flutter my feet against the whitecaps and wait for Chris to exit the diving boat. Donning his face mask, he slides under the surface, and I follow, swimming toward a fringe reef of yellow coral, scattering spotted balloonfish and red snapper, descending until our surroundings feel like a dimly lit cavern. We orient ourselves by the motorboat’s steady thrum.

Down here, I can barely make out my hands and the love lines that my grandmother, who knew well the aesthetics of the heart, once outlined for me. Finally, our eyes adjust. Chris’s wavy hair is drifting above him like black clouds pinned to his scalp. Reaching out, I sweep my fingers through its softness and ache with guilt about last night. I’m a coward.

He seeks out my hand, squeezes it, and coaxes me upward. We can’t go on as we have. I know that. Eventually the heart yields to the body or the two part ways. Yet with that single, gentle touch, his quiet and my urge to run away recede in importance. Coward though I am, I didn’t let go of him. I didn’t wave goodbye. I held on despite images of Pagliaccio and broken two-by-fours and frightened toddlers and runaway teens and despondent parents and the waltzes we inherit from them. If only I can keep hanging on until the images fade.

Chris breaks the water’s surface first. As the sun dissolves into the horizon, he paddles toward the boat, and I call to him. “Don’t leave yet,” I say. “We’ve just enough light left to see.”