Home / Fiction / Contemporary Fiction / Listening Under Water

Listening Under Water

Published: September 23, 2016

I hate my husband the most at dinnertime, but I can’t stop myself from cooking his favorites. Tonight the greasy smell of fried chicken hangs in the air and the bowl of mashed potatoes sport the perfect shade of buttery yellow. Freshly baked chocolate chip cookies rest on the counter. I breathe it all in, gleaning strength from the heaviness in the air, reminding myself that this is still a kind of love, but the battling emotions jostle through my belly in a new, angry grumble I’ve never felt before.

I reach for the light switch, flick it up and down three times. It’s been two years to the day since Jim installed the switch, a way for me to gain his attention when he’s sequestered himself away in his basement workshop building bassinets for the new mothers at church. I can’t call down because he won’t hear me, and I stopped descending the stairs one year, 360 days ago. After two nights of cold dinners plus another three days of snaking Home Depot wires through the walls, Jim revealed the beauty of his new light switch signaling system. Silent genius.

By the time I transfer everything to the table, Jim’s boots have clomped their way up the wood stairs and he stands in the doorway, smiling broadly, appreciative of the fragrances, appreciative of my efforts, but not of me, I don’t think. He’s wearing the headphones, the noise-cancelling ones he pumps with white noise day in and day out, filling his head and his thoughts and his life with burbling static. My brain registers his wide smile, genuine as the day he married me, but all I really see are the giant black headphones wrapped over his head.

Jim takes a seat, scoops food directly from the serving dishes to his plate. He can reach clear across the table, almost to my fingertips, so he’s done in seconds, already shoveling food into his mouth and nodding his approval before I even reach for a utensil. My stomach gives an unexpected lurch that roars at me inside my head: You cant possibly still think he will ever show up for dinner without wearing those stupid things! You cant possibly think things will ever be normal again!

I don’t understand how that wiggling discomfort in my stomach can be speaking to me, but it is. It’s shouting at me, shutting out everything else the same way the noise in Jim’s headphones must, twisting at my guts and forcing me to acknowledge thoughts I’ve tamped down and ignored for years.

I haven’t eaten my first bite. Jim is halfway through his first helping, but suddenly he stops, fork suspended in the air. He looks at my plate, my glass of iced tea, my silverware, which rattle against the tabletop as if an earthquake has descended on the 20 or 30 square feet occupied by our kitchen table. There is no earthquake, though. It’s me. My fingers are gripping the edge of the table so tightly my fingers have turned red and white in stressed splotches. The tremors in my body are running down the lengths of my arms, transferring into the table, shaking up my place setting so the lined-up knife and fork and spoon are now askew.

My mouth drops open when I see what I’m doing. Jim’s jaw unhinges too. His eyes go round, and there’s a wild fear etched across his brow, a mirror reflection of what I’m feeling, an open distress I haven’t seen from him in a long time. I can tell he doesn’t have a clue what to do. We’ve been in denial for too long to even begin to know how to handle this.

My insides are screaming now. Break away! Break away! So I do. I yank my hands off the table, and since I’m the only one who could hear the clatter I’d created, there’s a satisfaction in this abrupt stillness that’s completely opposite of the chaos I’ve endured since Jim went silent. Now I’m fumbling in the kitchen drawer, digging for a notepad, a pen. In the back, I find a tiny pad of Post-its that are curled at the corners. Jim is very adept at lip-reading but this I’m going to write, because I want him to hear me. I want what I have to say to linger on his retinas.

It feels good to drag the pen across the paper, scratching out the words:

No more, Jim!  I rip the top sheet away and slap it onto the table in front of him. He reads the paper, has the decency to look at me even if his expression is that of an uncomprehending child.

I have to leave. I palm this note on top of the first.

Jim touches it with the tip of his finger. No. He shakes his head. No.

Cant do this anymore. Slap — on top of the other two. I don’t wait for his reaction.

Why are we still here in this house, by the lake? This one I stick to my index finger because I’ve run out of room.

doing THIS Its killing me. You 

This one goes on my middle finger. I force myself to write smaller, even though I’m trying to scream.

wont let me move on. I cant heal, J. Im dying. I lay all three notes down, one next to the other in a line of neon squares. My chest is heaving. I can’t feel any air in my lungs.

He doesn’t look up. He’s arranging all the notes into a neat three-by-two grid, each one perfectly squared to its neighbor, and he’s pressing at the curled corners, trying to control the situation.

My anger drains into sorrow I don’t need, seeing him like that, but I can’t stay, not now that I’ve broken.

Decide!

I push the note toward him. It dangles, quivering, by the adhesive attached to my fingertip. He plucks it away and stares at it while I fish my car keys from my purse and run out the door.

I stamp my foot on the gas, let gravel fly against the undercarriage, and squeal out onto the asphalt. I can only think of one place to go. I would rather go anywhere than the Tuesday night support group at church, but that’s where my inner GPS seems to be taking me, steering by rote to the exact place where all my well-meaning friends begged me to go back when my wounds were new and open and oozing with fresh pain. They’ll take me in, but I won’t be able to blame them if my arrival is met with a lack of enthusiasm.

I am wrong, of course. They all speak at once, saying my name over and over until my nerves tingle while they tug me into the fold. I’m dissolving into a frayed wire, but the pressure of their tight hugs keep me from buzzing completely apart.

From our circle of chairs, Deedee Smith begins by telling us how her husband Clint’s grown children have ostracized her since his death. “They ate Easter lunch at my house not three months ago, and now they can’t be bothered to call me. It’s as if I don’t exist anymore. I’ve lost a whole family.” Next to Deedee, Alan Maguire reaches across the blank space and covers her hand in her lap, a comforting gesture echoed by a hum of support in the room. I stare at his hand, the lean fingers all-encompassing, marveling at the way her tinier one curls into a ball, disappearing underneath his. When he pulls it away seconds later, it actually feels like a burden has been lifted from the room.

He’s next in the lineup. “I think I’m doing better,” he declares. I already knew that Alan’s wife, Carol, had passed away four months ago from cancer. Jim and I sent a sympathy card. “I hope it doesn’t sound terrible to say I don’t think about her every second of every day.”

“Of course not,” I hear myself say, my words harmonizing into a chorus of similar sentiments.

Alan basks in the approval. “It feels like a shift has occurred. There are these moments now when I realize time’s gone by when my mind has wandered into a completely different place and I’m not sure how it got there. The pain comes back, in waves, but they aren’t crashing against me relentlessly anymore.”

How incredibly poetic, I think, with not an ounce of sarcasm. Jealousy, yes. I want that relief he’s describing, but I haven’t been allowed to have it. I want my loss transformed into a simple, beautiful description like that, but I don’t believe I can make it happen. And I’m right.

The baton continues passing from one bereaved soul to another. When it’s my turn to grasp it, all I can muster is, “It still hurts …” An almost inaudible, even to myself, “… so much” is swept away by heartfelt mutterings of late, late condolences. These people all know that I lost my child. They even think they know how. I can’t elaborate. Even after the way I left Jim tonight, hovering over my sticky-note ultimatums, the truth will always only belong to the two of us. What I’ve said isn’t much, but it’s all I can let go of right now.

Fifteen minutes later, the group disburses. Not enough time has passed for me to go home. I cross the parking lot as slowly as I can and linger by my car, keys in hand, watching other cars exit, one by one, punctuation on a smile and a wave from each driver. I would prefer a shroud of darkness, but I’m thankful for the promise in the fading light.

“Anna.”

Alan Maguire has pulled his truck alongside my car. “Are you all right?”

He’s asking me. This man with his own grief to handle is asking me how I feel, and I can’t answer. My silence must speak volumes. Ironic.

“Anna,” he says again, gently, like he’s trying not to spook a horse. “Come with me. We’ll get a coffee.”

I have to swallow. “No coffee,” I say.

“We can go to the park. Walk. It could help.”

Walking. Yes. That sounds good. The park down the street doesn’t have a lake or pond. I can walk there, with this man who is willing to talk to me. “Okay.”

His truck is foreign territory, layered in dust from a different world wherever his fingers haven’t buffed out a shine. He gathers several fast food bags from the passenger seat, crumples them, and stashes them behind the seat so I can take their place. A startling pang of sympathy zips across my midriff for this man. The skin over my ribs used to contract like that for Jim.

“Sorry about that,” Alan says.

“Oh no, don’t worry about it. You’re busy.” I’m thinking of the homemade zucchini muffins Carol used to bring for Sunday school breakfasts on Fifth Sundays. My trite response hangs between us on the short drive, and I’m grateful when we turn into the park’s entrance, more grateful to be out of his truck and on the path.

“I don’t eat very well now that …” Alan tapers off.

“I cook like crazy. It’s all I do.” What I’ve said feels instantly inappropriate, like I’m lording my meals over him. “I’ve never mastered cooking for two.”

“No?” It’s incredibly bright, this one word spoken while he looks at his feet.

“It’s the recipes,” I back-pedal, trying to correct my faux pas before it gets worse. “I could never divide the measurements and have things turn out right, so I gave up. It’s always too much. I could pack you some meals.”

No doubt he’s run through all the home-catered casseroles that appeared in droves in the beginning. He might be entirely content with his trips to Chick-fil-A, now that I think about it.

“I miss her cooking.”

“Zucchini muffins,” I blurt.

This gets a smile. His head pops up, and I realize in this moment that for all his nice intentions back in the church parking lot, we aren’t here for me. We’re here for him.

“Oh my God, yes! Were they not delicious?” he says.

“So delicious.”

“Did you ever taste her apple fritters? They were so flaky.”

“No, but remember that time she made jambalaya for the basketball banquet? I asked her for the recipe, like ladies do. She didn’t say no, but I’m pretty sure she had one of those telepathic excuse-me-I-have-to-answer-this-phone-that-didn’t-actually-ring calls.”

“Right!” A hearty laugh boils up inside him. “Don’t take it personally. That recipe was her grandmother’s. The Villemont women guard that thing like well-trained Dobermans.”

I throw my head back to laugh with him and a smattering of raindrops hit my face.

Yards away, a sudden wall of rain chases our warning drops. Alan holds out his hands, palms up. “Up for a sprint?”

I grab one of his hands, knowing full well that’s not why he’s put them out there, but he folds his fingers over mine anyway, and we take off.

The rain catches us, drenching our hair and the top half of our clothes. We let go of each other and jump in the truck, slamming our doors at the same time while the rain pounds onto the roof and windshield.

He runs a hand over his head, dragging water through the strands, and wipes water from his face. “So was your walk cleansing enough for you?” A surprisingly soprano giggle bursts out of him.

“Yes. It was,” I say. I touch a wet strand of his hair that he missed and comb it back with the rest, allowing my fingers to lightly trace the naked top of his ear. I want to dig my fingers into a man’s untethered hair, to cup my hand around the back of his head, to draw him to me and kiss him and whisper into his ear, and I want that man to be Jim. I give Alan’s hair a little tousle, like he’s a 5-year-old child, and put my hands in my lap. “Thank you.”

The rain shower has conjured a mist that reaches up off the lake, illuminated in my headlights as my wheels crunch across the gravel leading to my house. At first I don’t see him, but then the outline of a man emerges intermittently through the wavering fog.

Jim. Not Jim. Jim again. Staring out over the lake.

I cut the lights, get out, pick my way through the weeds toward him. The closer I get, the better I can make him out. Disappointment surges through me, but something else too. Hope? The headphones are there, black sentries wrapped over the top of his head. He won’t have heard me walk down the bank, but he knows I’m behind him.

Without turning, he holds up a square of neon orange paper.

Through the moonlight, I read my own handwriting: Why are we still here

Then he holds up a second note. Because shes here. It’s his lumpy writing, his boxy letters penned neatly onto the tiny square, not like the frantic scrawling of my note. This feels like a decision.

I walk around so I’m standing in front of him, my back to the lake, planting myself between him and the demon that took our child. I can’t undo the fact that he took her swimming too far out, that when he saw the boat speeding straight toward them, the boy on board drunk and laughing and plucking at his girlfriend’s bikini strap, he uttered his last words to our daughter. “Big breath, Linds. The biggest.” Together, they gulped in air that stretched their lungs, then Jim flipped and dove with Lindsey in his arms, into the cold depths with the churning blades of the boat’s motor chomping after their heels. Jim thought the boat was circling back; he could hear the muffled motor buzzing away, but then it sounded like it was coming back at them, so he stayed under too long, holding onto Lindsey, listening, listening for the quiet of a lake with no boats that never came while she clawed her tiny fingernails into his back and finally let the air go from her lungs.

I can’t blame him for never wanting to hear another boat scuttle across these waters — his keen hearing betrayed him that day on the lake — but it’s time for my husband to stop punishing himself.

Because shes here, the note says. It’s an answer, but it’s not a decision. I need Jim to decide, so I back toward the water, my body trembling with the aftershock of the quake that shook our kitchen table hours before.

The muscles in Jim’s face tense, folding in on themselves.

When my feet touch the water, he shakes his head, begging me to stop, but I can’t. I walk backward until the lazy water laps against my shins. There’s movement in his shoulders, like he’s leaning into me.

I’m up to my waist before he moves. He reaches me, wincing as the water folds over his feet, and I can see the streaks drawn by tears along either side of his nose.

I take his hands and slide my feet backward through the muddy bottom so the water is at my chin. A moment passes when I think he will leave me, that he won’t be able to bear what I’ve put in motion, but then he drifts into me, presses against me. We breathe and go under. I can’t see him in the dark of the water, but my hands follow the line of his shoulders and neck till I find the headphones. Barely moving, I slip my fingers underneath them, then over his ears, and push them away from us forever into the cool black water.

The lake is completely silent. I hope he can hear it.

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  • Megan Marquart

    An okay story, but I would want a more upbeat ending.
    Loss of a child is not the end of the world. Been there!

  • Jill Hobby

    Wow … left me wanting more …

  • Charlotte Smallwood

    What a beautiful story with so many emotions. So worthy of the Terry Kay Prize