The first thing that occurred to me, as I watched the woman strike the child, was that surely I was not the only witness. A limpid, early summer evening, on a cul-de-sac of tightly spaced houses — surely other families were watching, from their back patios, their screened porches, their postage stamp front yards. At the very least there were other families hearing, if not the strike itself then the screams that followed it, and the second strike, and the second round of screams. But nobody came out.
I should call 9-1-1, I thought. But maybe that was what everyone else was doing, quietly, from inside their homes. An invisible hand pushed me past the edge of my own driveway, into the slim street.
Maybe the woman noticed me first, or maybe the child. It seemed simultaneous, their noticing. The woman’s hand retreated; the child quieted. ‘Stop,’ I said, though of course they already had.
‘He lost the key. Our only key,’ the woman said. She had warm brown eyes and tennis legs and looked like someone I knew, though I was certain I didn’t know her. And then somehow they were in my house — am I so undone by warm brown eyes? They were in my hall, taking in the little foyer, the family photographs diagonaling up the stairs. How old was the child? Out on the driveway, I’d thought nine, ten — but now he seemed much older, and his wide eyes, staring at the photographs, were dull and devoid of his mother’s warmth. The doorbell rang, and the child went to open it. “I understand there’s been some trouble,” I heard a man’s voice say, with bland geniality. The boy pulled the door fully open and the man stepped inside. All three of them stood together in my hall and began to look at me with the same, unnerving blankness. It was either then or when I heard the lock click shut that I understood I would not be getting out of the house.
I woke up with the same mix of relief and regret that always accompanies my nightmares. Relief at the nightmare, and regret over yet another story I’d failed to finish. (Has anyone seen a nightmare through? Is it, then, a dream?)
How many smart writers have counseled against the public airing of dreams? But the one stuck with me, because the questions it raised — where were all the neighbors in this cul-de-sac? Why had I let the woman into my house? How did would it have ended, if I’d managed to stay asleep? — were the same types of questions I have when I’m reading any thriller, or mystery, only I was also responsible for their answers.
You’d think turning a nightmare into a short story would be easy, or at least straightforward, but every time I’ve tried it, the original’s heart-thumping thread is quickly abandoned for backstory, intricate and treacherous.
These, the first two paragraphs, are case in point:
Ida did not understand how she could be the only witness to the horrible scene. Eight at night on a Friday. Undoubtedly some of the neighbors had gone away for the weekend, to their little cottages on the Cape, or their cabins on — what was that lake Hec had mentioned, the one that allowed motorboats. It had a long, musical name that got horribly mangled in the local tongue, a clipped, nasal thing whose perennial big-screen popularity mystified Ida and angered Hec. Anyways, a Friday night early in the summer: of course some people had taken advantage. The people who could. But Ida and Hec were still new, relatively, to this country. One house, a butter-yellow dutch colonial with a door as close to the blue of the Adriatic as Ida, mixing furiously, could get it, had seemed presumptuous enough. Who were they to live in America, on a cul-de-sac, with an automatic sprinkler and a tidy privacy screen of boxwood and rhododendron? Who were they to have not only a television and internet but a little grey cylinder that told them the weather and a little white circle that automatically adjusted the thermostat?
Sometimes, when Hec invited his coworkers over for steaks (big, American steaks, so stippled with fat they didn’t so much char as baste in their own excess) on the little back patio and the men stayed late, drinking and playing cards and mock-cajoling Hec to get out his guitar as the twinkle lights made soft magic of their ordinary faces, or when Ida went with her soccer friends to the pub in the adjoining town, a worn-in place with free peanuts and fifty-cent pizza and enamelwear pitchers of very foamy beer and a jukebox whose catalogue ended in 1972 (“Lean on Me” was the very last entry), she would answer this question, and its imaginary questioner proudly. They were somebody. Somebodies.
I’m sorry, and yet I’m not sorry enough, for I can’t help myself. Last week, I worked on it a bit after the boys went down, and each time, I ended up diverging, embroidering, not answering the all-important question of whether I (or, I suppose, Ida) would get out of the house alive. I still don’t know the answer to that, though I know that Ida and Hec met at a wedding in which both were the loosest connections of the groom, Hec’s former lab mate, and bride, who had been the other exchange student at the preposterously American high school in Pasadena where Ida had learned to surf, cut class, and smoke vast amounts of pot. None of which matters to the plot, apart, possibly, from Hec and Ida’s shared alienation, which Hec later sheds.
I could blame this inability to advance the story on being nearly nine months pregnant, but that would be a false blame. I’ve been writing wide instead of long for years. If I were a land artist, maybe I’d end up with a ripple effect, or a sand-banked mobius strip, but wide words pack less of a punch.
You can write wide and long, of course, and some of my favorite authors do, but I’m guessing they write long first. If I could only get in the practice of writing outlines before, rather than the rare afters!
Speaking of outlines: I spent most of the Amtrak back from our babymoon in New York devouring A Life’s Work, Rachel Cusk’s memoir of new motherhood. It was an astonishing experience, not because of how artfully and personally Cusk expressed many of my own thoughts on identity battles — “To succeed in being one means to fail at being the other,” she writes — and breastfeeding and societal inanities and, most of all, that guilty choker of free time, but because it was Cusk who was expressing them. Cusk, whose Outline narrator seemed so utterly detached from the vagaries of her own life, motherhood included. Which goes to show that you (I) should never confuse the narrator for the author.
A Life’s Work is wry, piquant, bittersweet. It is raw and honest and beautifully observed. There are moments of magic, but many more of stress, injury, powerlessness.
“I become an undone task, a phone call I can’t seem to make, a bill I don’t get around to paying. My life has the seething atmosphere of an untended garden.”
Its depiction of motherhood as sometimes unhappy, of relationship between mother and infant as fraught and often lacking in explicit ministrations of affection caused no small amount of outrage after its publication; a reminder that attitudes have changed quite a lot in twenty years (at least, I’d like to think they have). The motherhood memoir I’d most liken it to is Ann Lamott’s Operating Instructions, minus the spirituality and cancer.
(I vividly remember being nine months pregnant with my first and reading the lines “He’s an awful baby. I hate him” and snort-laughing so loudly the entire subway car turned my way. The audacity of admitting such sentiments even to yourself, let alone the public! As it turned out, they weren’t sentiments I’d end up sharing, but it was such a relief to know I could.)
As written, Cusk’s emotional pendulum doesn’t swing half as far in either direction as Lamott’s — but the overall effect is bleaker, more savage. And also, thanks to a structure that is thematic first, chronological second, and a pitch-perfect selection of literary passages relevant to these themes, more academic, more artful. The stanzas from Samuel Taylor Coledrige’s Frost at Midnight struck me so that I had to copy them down, in exceedingly sloppy, Amtrak-jagged pen.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
‘Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness.
A reading that plunged me back to my first maternity leave, and the unexpected vexation brought about by the prolonged nap. The sense of stolen time a’wasting — and yet: should I wake him? Inevitably, I would.
The past tense is unnecessary: the vexation persists. Each nap presents a catalogue of potential worthwhile activities to be glanced over and put aside (or, as Cusk puts it, to “liaise, as if it were a lover, with my former life”). An hour’s indole followed by thirty minutes of fretful typing.
What is the best use of thirty minutes? To research Harvard’s computer lab circa 1979? To re-read chapters I know better than my own person? To recall Perry running full-steam down the path-of-skinned-knees and into the lake, stopping only when the water is above his shoulders (and then, only at my grasping-for-stern bidding). To record Irving’s newfound love for the old babydoll he rescued from the bottom of the toy trunk? How he rocks it, saying “it’s okay, baby,” and kisses its cue-ball head? How this stands in stark contrast to his behavior towards the real baby, whom he likes to strike, or bounce upon with twinkling eyes.
(At least the baby, undulating and twitching like a prowling cat, doesn’t seem to mind.)
Some days, that half hour is better spent swimming across the lake that Perry, not yet quite a swimmer, so nonchalantly explores. The swim, a little over a mile if I stay straight, ends up where it begins, and yet, unlike writing, can reliably convey the sense of having gotten somewhere.
I don’t think I’ll finish writing the story of Ida — but you know what: I do know the end, after all. She gets out of the house.