Losing, I Think

by Erin T. Pringle

The delivery goes well. A scar across abdomen and stretch marks treading flesh. Mother crosses herself and dangles a rosary—pink and white swirled glass—above my head. It reminds me of when we were kids, and you pushed me into the pond to prove you could save me. Ice ripping and numbing. Breathing out without an in. The punch and paralysis. I whisper your name to our baby—her name is Eleanor because I remember how much you like the Beatles. Or maybe it’s me.

Water is my cure for your constant vacation. I can choose the heat and length of its touch. A pool or waterfall. Sometimes, I can barely pull myself from its grasp.

We sat by the water’s edge—salt stinging the glass cuts beneath my toes, and I wondered if you broke the half-full 7-up bottle. Green glass like my eyes through the doorknob’s pupil.

When you told me how you played in your father’s semi-truck as a child, curling in the cab’s mix of apple cider and cherry cavendish tobacco, I listened as intently as you stared at the power lines.

You say it is possible to float in the Dead Sea without thinking. The salt still clinging to your jaw as I sucked its sting into my lips, chapped in a world of four seasons.

The calluses were still fresh from raking maple and oak into separate piles. You did not notice my Band-Aids, even though they pressed your palms. I agreed that the tan lines on your feet from the plastic flip flops were suave. We stuck to the first layer of epidermis.

Your mouth at my breast too close beneath the comforter. Pushing you away with raw hands, I winced, but you didn’t notice, busy feeling betrayed.

We danced in the bar, your hand rubbing a wound in my polyester shoulder, my eyes closed to the torpid touch. You did not have to ask me if the stake was ready to be consumed.

Lighthouses are pathetic collector’s items. You laughed, tapping my refrigerator magnets, and left your roll of Nova Scotia scenes on the coffee table while I washed dishes. I drove you to the airport. Again.

You accidentally rubbed thighs with the passenger next to you, and I sucked marshmallows from the fire. My fingers disappearing in the ivory goo without sensation.

The postcards were late again. I was too.

I pasted the store-bought disregard in the scrapbook. It doubled for first steps and words. An aerial view of Prague next to “Sleeping through the night.”

I took a ceramics class in Lawrence. Hoping to lose myself in the pottery-wheel vortex. Earth tones and wet clay between fingers, filling in life lines, hope lines. Since you’ve been to Greece and Italy you will be disappointed by my hands.

The sound of you stumbling up my steps with jet-lagged feet. Door left unlatched year round for these rare occasions. I only had leftover liver. Your hands skied my belly-slope. You never used the flash when I insisted on a picture. I knew it wouldn’t develop or wrinkle in your wallet. We ordered-in lasagna, and you complained of the obvious differences from when you held the pasta on a silver fork in Venice. Over my generic red wine, I told you that I was craving. You didn’t ask what and left me with aluminum-foil containers clotted with burned cheese.

There was a news report today on the Red Light district in Amsterdam. I stand in the window nightly. Waiting for the car door slam and footsteps that don’t come. Please don’t bring me a souvenir.

It’s a week before you secede this time. I mourn over iced tea. Sit in the wicker couch on the porch that pokes the soft flesh of the backs of my arms and thighs. More affectionate than your toes in my ears. Chimes. Gladiolas and bachelor’s buttons planted in the garden. I am letting the weeds grow. The bird cage you gave me—found in a basement years when puberty was foreshadowed—has rusted open. The robins and sparrows you captured between infrequent visits do not visit anymore. I go to buy birdseed to keep them around, but the price has risen, and I do not have a coupon.

Vacuuming and dusting. I become the local cleaning lady. Servant to them, an easy label. Swabbing inlaid wooden decks, watering flowers never touched, never seen. The carpet fringe will never lay flat and straight no matter how many times straightened.

You do not come home for Christmas, and I don’t spread myself in the snow. The angel you tried to freeze is decaying. Diapers and curdled breast milk.

Her first word is Da-da. An artist, perhaps.

The dreams come in force. London’s arms wrapping my face in a saxophone rag, women whispering Hail Marys at tea. I tear off pieces of the scones you air mail and stick them between Eleanor’s wet gums. Crumbs stuck on the tiny hairs of her cheeks.

I pretend you amble with me as I push her stroller through town and gossips’ sneers. Mother says she has your eyes. I fear the day she’ll see the sun and wonder how it glares in another city. I nail a compass rose to the crib’s headboard.

The movie theatre across from your old house is torn down today. Front-page story. Eleanor helps me drag one of the seats from the auction. Hammering it into the living-room floor.

She is learning to tap dance. Wants to be Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire. Ribbons in her braids.

The steel mill is hiring third shift. Mother will watch Eleanor through the night.

I step on a forgotten nail on my way to the mailbox, its point sticking through the other side, an inch below my big toe. Blood blooms through bandages. Mother says it is a sign. She does not say what of.

I find a straw pressed between the pages of my Bible. Ninth grade when you took me to The Parlor for hamburgers. You had coke, I had 7-up. I held the bottle to my eye and you kaleidescoped into so many eyes and mouths. Your teeth marks still on the straw. Do your other lovers notice the habit? No one uses straws these days, at least no world traveler.

My horoscope says seven will be my lucky number today. Seven stitches in my palm from a slip while slicing onions. Crying and bleeding—hand above heart. The blood drips into the cutting board’s grain. The black thread is train tracks my life line. We are losing, I think.

I cannot drive again. I refuse. A caterpillar and three butterflies dead in a sixty-second mile.

The woman next door locks the windows and takes a nap in her oven. Her name was Judith. She isn’t found for weeks because the smell is trapped. Eleanor and I aren’t able to cook dinner.

I sculpt your eyelids and forehead. A bust. Cut a slit in the slippery clay for the change slot. I keep my pennies in your head after you are fired. Eleanor uses you as a jewelry box, hanging necklaces and ribbons over the porcelain. I set you on the kitchen counter next to the Humpty Dumpty cookie jar.

Please come home. I am trying to teach Eleanor how to make persimmon pudding—your favorite—but she hates persimmons and ovens. A good Gretel.

We are losing, I think.

Eleanor and I watch the Travel Channel in hope. She likes sitting in the chair from the theatre.

Bicycling now. Pawnshop throwaway. It came with a child’s seat, but Eleanor is too heavy and we can’t make it up hills. We take turns running beside each other. Soon, we’ll buy another. A first-aid kit in the handlebar basket to repair the wild animals caught between wheels. There are so many undone.

I receive your package today.

Eleanor and I roast hot dogs over the stove. Glad gas is included in rent.

A globe in the library. I point out the places you have been to Eleanor. She runs her fingers over the texture of geography, blowing off dust. To gauge the distance between where we are and you are, I touch one side while Eleanor touches the other. You are further than our hands can span.

The gifts are...

Eleanor shakes her castanets every chance she can get, through breakfast and television commercials. Wants to know if there’s a castanet-er position in the school band. I suggest a petition and pour more orange juice.

The concrete cracks in the porch stairs are widening. I dream of spindles and sleeping one hundred years, or as many it takes until I can’t blame you for not kissing, for not hacking away thorns. Eleanor wants bedtime stories, but all I have are postcards and stamps.

A gray hair in my cereal. At first, I didn’t know whose it was.

A bonfire of your ink. I add leaves, branches, and Eleanor’s 2T and 6X clothing to make it last longer. My feet pounding a rhythm you hear in the voice of a Vietnamese waiter or train-track shove. Tell me that at least you hear it. At least you drum your fingers once in absent frustration.

Mother brings blueberry muffins and Prozac. Places self-help books around the house as if following the crumbs will lead to anywhere but here.

Eleanor stops dancing. Her toes and heels are softening; the blisters I Mercurochromed and bandaged, break. Pus wet in my apron.

Of course, you arrive in a taxi. Neighbors leaning over balconies to watch the spectacle. I don’t run into the street, arms wide. I turn up the radio and light a cigarette. Wicker biting. You tip your hat to the driver but leave it on as you cross the sidewalk— foot grinding my barren bed of earthworms. Suitcases evolved from sticker-clad vinyl to expensive leather. Eleanor is in bed with breasts and cramps, heating pad pressed against belly button. She can hear your voice but cannot yet detect what it is laced with. You drop glass figurines and pearls into my lap. I turn my head to your kiss, but your smell is new this time. The dusky scent of a middle-aged man.

She knows who you are before introduction. Whispers how handsome, a Cary Grant. I remind her that he’s an actor. That Brigadoon plants itself somewhere else for reasons.

I close my eyes to your climax. You roll to the other side of the bed. I want to tear down the framed postcards on the wall, build another bonfire. You light a cigarette. How many cigarettes did you light while I helped Eleanor with her lessons or laughed at her knock-knock jokes two thousand clocks away? We used to share this cigarette, fingers grazing as we passed it back and forth. But tonight, you don’t even ask if I care for a drag. If you did, I’d tell you how Eleanor came home from school crying one day because there was a lecture on cancer complete with slides of charred lungs, faces void of noses, lips. Holes in throats where words fester.

I try to smile between popcorn kernels. Eleanor sits at my feet while you struggle with the screen and projector. A twelve-year slide show: proof of your productivity. Mine is blinding at yours right now. At number thirty, I stop counting the recurring smiling woman dressed like a magazine ad for beautiful. We all reach into the popcorn bowl. Our hands touch, and we pull away and rearrange the throw pillows—decoration an easier issue. Eleanor runs to the bathroom to floss her teeth. A brief glance and your fingers are at the nape of my neck. Those amnesiac fingers. Moment of passion and insane neurons. In this second hand’s tick, I want to forget the white space between slides and fall into memory, immune to possible suffocation. Eleanor returns, laughing. Butter and cheese smears on our faces and chests. Let’s use the flash this one time. Please.

We argue over a trip into the city. I see the rabbit before you can brake. Eleanor screams in the back seat. You whistle Barry Manilow. The rabbit shakes, drags itself across the road to drop into the ditch. By the time we get to the shopping mall I am crying, wishing I had made you stop, pull over. I could have rescued it, cradled it to me, pressed my lips to the patches of lost hair as we rushed to the vet. Eleanor insists on walking the thirty miles back rather than taking the car. You are ruffled, shoving fingers through your hair as always. You stare into the rearview mirror and accuse her of taking after her mother. As if I’m not here, perhaps asleep in a thorned up castle. I cross myself, giggling deep in relief. Eleanor and I rent bicycles. You drive behind us, blinkers flashing.

After dinner, I unfold the baby bonnets, blankets, and my scrapbooks of Eleanor. Of you. Head in hands, you crumple in the sofa. She watches from the crack of her bedroom door. I let you drown my apron with your self pity. The apologies do not kiss my lips tenderly but rip at their tender flesh. A castanet hits the wall and shatters. The beads inside: bullets without a hammer.

A week passes. Let’s fly a kite, you say. Eleanor drags behind us on the way to the park. The hill is much smaller than I remember from when we’d climb up there and hold hands and you’d plan our future. Even then I kept my hands fisted because you said hope was hands unfolded. Always the great thinker. You hold the string as I struggle to steady the paper diamond into the wind. Eleanor lies on the hill’s hip, tickling dandelions and watching our Mary Poppins moment. Your arms around my waist. The woman in the slides, you say. Your a partner in France. Five years now. The kite unleashes from my fingers. You say I must understand. Eleanor chases after it. The red diamond catches in the trees below. Branches rip the flimsy architecture.

Eleanor does not jump or try to reach the flapping string. I would have at her age. I am tempted even now to tear down the hill after her, sucking so much air into my body so that maybe I’ll fly free too. But how to stop this when so long ago in a crowded diner, I held a green bottle and saw your face shattered into so many that I couldn’t find the original.

Eleanor sits between us as you show her pictures of her French siblings. Two boys. Love to fish and play sports. How nice, I remark. When I was much younger, my mother would clean the house when she was angry with Father. Spring Cleaning happened twenty times a year. I’d sit in the middle of the living room as she roared around me, dust shrapnelling air, trinkets lifted and replaced. I’d laugh, her face so comically serious. Really, it was despair. I leave the room, you picture-persuading Eleanor. Already, she seems to understand you better than I ever will. Of course, she has never been taught to expect you. But maybe neither have I. In the kitchen, I retrieve the Comet and rubber gloves. Scrub counters, mop floors, flush toilets clean. Because my own washer twirls without water, I walk to the Laundromat. The electric groan and women in curlers are comforting beneath fluorescent bulbs and for one spin cycle, you and Eleanor don’t exist and all the postcards curl-burn from memory and I’m seven again sitting on the counter as Mother folds sheets and you haven’t moved to the neighborhood yet and haven’t moved away and all is mountain rain detergent.

Twilight before I begin my trek back. An hour of dryer lint makes me crave home. Twenty years of tourists and strange beds and you still don’t.

A turtle in the middle of the road. I drop the laundry basket—socks curling into the air, polka-dotted underwear creasing on curb—and run. A car would never see it and its head would turn to slow to even register that it should move. Smashed shell of age by color. I hold it to my chest, coo motherese as it pees down my blouse. I place it in the grass on the side of the road to where it was headed. I wait until the legs unfold, scales rippling orange, and the shell sways safe. We used to race turtles in our backyards, balloons taped to shells in case we might lose track.

We hug good-bye. Taking Eleanor for the summer. Promises of postcards and pictures. She tells me not to worry, and I warn her of 7-up bottles and she nods blindly. I wave from the porch and when I’m back in the house I go into her room where the crib still stands under piles of folded clothes that are out of season, or outgrown, or still need to be put away. Nail holes left in the headboard.

© 2005 by Erin T. Pringle.
Erin T. Pringle is a graduate student on Rose Fellowship at Texas State University where she also teaches. Her stories have appeared in Quarter After Eight, Downstate Story, Adirondack Review, and Pagitica in Toronto. She lives in San Marcos with her husband Jeremy and their three dogs, Gretta, Molly, Isla, and cat, Faulkner. She will drive to her native Midwest to celebrate the retirement of her undergraduate creative writing instructor Howard McMillen from Indiana State University.