Joanne glanced over at her husband’s sleeping form and thought: he’s not asleep. The impulse to wake Alder up came to her, and she whispered his name, almost inaudibly. He did not stir.
Her feet arched as they hit the icy hardwood floor. She spent almost a minute feeling for her slippers, her hands groping silently over the floor like delicate crabs. It’s strange how we always remember how to prowl, she thought. And: this floor needs a good sweeping…
Stephen was sleeping soundly, in the shot-soldier manner of the young. He was sprawled half over, half under his duvet, his arm reaching for the window. Joanne walked up to him, remembering to duck under the model aeroplanes that hung from the ceiling. Sitting on the bed, she reached forward and brushed his hair from his forehead, then saw a little silver line and leaned forward.
The moon shone in through the window, cracked by the threaded tree branches. Very gothic, very ghostly. Her son’s eyes were closed, and there was a thin silver line along the eyelids. As Joanne watched, the silver line bulged at the bottom, and a tiny tear rolled down Stephen’s face.
He’s crying in his sleep, she thought, and felt a stick-insect of horror delicately climbing her spine. Leaning forward, she saw a fine corrugation of – salt? – along Stephen’s smooth cheeks. She reached over his face and touched the sheet. Wet, cold…
Joanne took a deep breath, and stood up quickly, holding her mouth. At the foot of the bed, little scraps of torn-up paper littered the floor. She grabbed a few of them and, not breathing for fear of sobbing, ran out of the room.
Sitting in the kitchen, she felt as alone as she ever had in her life.
She turned a little table light on, then opened her hand and looked at the scraps of paper. Smoothing them out, an internal shock hit her almost physically. She touched her swelling belly. That felt like a kick, but it’s far too early for that…
Stephen had started making notes about his family a few months ago. At first, it had seemed funny; there had been a lot of Jane Goodall jokes, and once, Alder had mock-awarded his son a degree in suburban anthropology. Strange. Alder and I never discussed what he was writing… I just thought it was some kind of childish phase, like making your own Mother’s Day cards or handing out newsletters about life in the fifth grade. He’s been doing this for… – six months? She tried to remember the longest game she had played as a child. Probably the soap opera involving my dolls – that was what, a year? Something like that. In the odd manner of memories long abandoned, she suddenly remembered trying for weeks to get her parents to sit in for a show. Only Sally watched, only Sally saw, she thought, remembering a playmate for the first time in about twenty years, and another tear escaped her lowered eyes. Something inside is breaking…
Joanne lowered her head. She seemed to see her life from a great height, but not in a detached way. Ignored children habitually misplace gloves and toys; as adults, they can lose entire decades. She saw herself reaching for her parents, but they were busy, they ran past their children, tending them like plants. The great childhood strain of trying to get her parents’ attention came back to her, and her head lowered still further.
Opening her eyes, she saw the following, written on a torn scrap of paper –
Dad lied about the
– On another, turned at an angle, was –
ignores what he says because
– and another –
don’t seem to love
– and another –
never asked me about
– and the last –
morality is not what they
Joanne squinted, shaking her head slowly. Morality?
Morality… That was a word from another time. A chilling, medieval word. Stern black hats and back-hand canings. Repressed sexuality and witch-hunts. The Middle East. Killing for a seat in Heaven. Intolerance. Psychology. Projection. A weapon of guilt, levelled at the insecure. Religion. A consolation prize for women: not money or power, but goodness.
My son is a moralist? Joanne shuddered, then grinned mirthlessly. I mean, the word is a sort of joke, isn’t it? A right-wing conspiracy. She felt a titanic drying of her tears; she was a water-planet on the edge of a supernova. A great black wave of cynicism rolled over her raw heart, like thick oil over a skinned seal pup. He cries at night because the world is imperfect?
But another thought struck her: No, no, Jo. He cries because you are imperfect!
Joanne shook her head slightly, quickly. That’s quite silly – we are all imperfect. She felt a sudden desire to strike her son, to bury his sensitivity under a scabby blanket of scars, to protect him by killing him early, and prickles of sweat suddenly formed on her forehead.
The danger of her son’s thoughts overwhelmed her. Morality. She got up, then sat down again.
I should go for a walk, I should go back to bed no not bed, there must be something on TV, some bad movie I can laugh at…
What the hell does the little bastard mean by ‘morality is not what they – ?’ Respect? Pursue? Indulge in?
No, no, be fair, he’s just a boy. Think back – when did you realise that your parents were not perfect? Joanne frowned. Umm, Dad talking too loud at a dinner party – I was what, four? Mom tried to kick him under the table, kicked me instead, I cried out: ‘mommy don’t kick!’ and the table went quiet. Later, she got mad at me, picked at everything. That was the beginning of the ‘children’s table,’ if I remember rightly…
Okay, so they weren’t perfect, but they were always there, in their own way. I have great teeth because they took me to the dentist. Mom helped with make-up. Dad fixed my bike, hands-on, hardware-dad that he was.
Every month or so, she’d go over to her parents for a Sunday, and her mother would go over the operation of new appliances (there was always at least one), and her father would turn on the TV to ‘rock her world with the sound quality,’ and then he’d flip around, looking for something to show off his DTS speakers, and they’d find a sports game and spend an hour or so making comments about it. Then he’d go out and fire up the barbecue, and her mother would take her on a tour of the garden, talking about the flowers, their histories and prospects and various ailments. Then Joanne would wander over to her father, and he’d give her instructions on how to make a good marinade or when to flip meat or how to clean the grill or the time he barbecued in winter and went through an entire propane tank it was so cold.
Then they’d eat and Joanne would talk a little about Stephen or Alder, and they’d listen, but there were no cues to continue or go deeper, so then they’d go through a list of people they’d met since the last time they’d seen her who said to say ‘hi,’ and gave a sentence or two about how they were doing, and she said to be sure to say ‘hi’ back to them.
The evening would generally end after their desultory conversation – prodded to occasional movement – mercifully wheezed its last, and expired in the living room. The odd thing was that the signal for the evening was always the same: twenty, thirty seconds of silence, followed by Joanne saying “Well…” and her mother saying: “You have to get up early, I’m sure,” and her father suddenly leaping up and shaking her hand firmly and disappearing upstairs.
Joanne would spend about half an hour getting away from her mother (women always need such a rhythm of exiting! she thought). Joanne always suspected that her mother didn’t want to have to go upstairs until her father was asleep – and then would drive home in a daze of dissociation.
Not bad people, not particularly good, but not bad either. Solid, I suppose. Salt of the earth. Not ones to wear their hearts on their sleeve, but if you have to move furniture, they’d be there at any time; six, seven in the morning, whatever you needed… They’d be at your deathbed, round the clock, getting you water, while all the unspoken things flowed freely between you…
Joanne sniffled again. Her cynicism returned. Good Lord – your deathbed? Who ordered ‘Self-Pity’s Greatest Hits?’ These were always sung by Karen Carpenter, for some reason…
But the image of her parents’ unemotional demeanour crumbling in the face of mortality was too much for her. Her face folded into an origami of sentiment, then she paused, frowning. But why would I be in the deathbed? They’ll likely go before me…
What if they never open up? she thought suddenly – and the pain of that thought was too deep to cry over. They’ll go to their graves hoarding their empty, useless hearts…
And then, of course, it came to her, and her mouth dropped open.
It would not be surprising to anyone else, because it was fairly obvious, but it came to Joanne with all the subtlety of a bomb in a baby carriage.
I married Alder because of my parents…
Her husband was cold, entertaining, distant, presentable, maddeningly elusive. They talked of every functional thing on the planet, but never opened their hearts to each other…
Her mind was awakening in a mad rush: it was like watching a dark city from a high hill as the power grid comes back on line. She flashed through restaurants bathed in sudden light, to subways lurching to motion once more, to elevators rising to the sky, to movies in mid-reel growling back up to speed. Would it stop? Would it stop, or would the new light ignite to a conflagration?
A cold wave came over her, and she shivered. The walls seemed to be glowing a vague grey, and she realised it was dawn.
She heard footsteps coming down the stairs, and from the heaviness – and the slight scratching sound – she realised it was Alder.
“You okay, hon?” he asked, yawning.
“Why are you up so early?”
“Didn’t sleep very well,” he said, scooping coffee into the bodum. “Heard you get up. Rough night, too?”
“Yeah. What time is it?”
“Quarter to seven. So what’s on for today?”
“Not much. Groceries. The basement.”
“It’ll be cosy when we’re done,” said Alder, sitting down heavily. He glanced up, then smiled suddenly. “Now ask me.”
Joanne paused. “Go ahead.”
“I’ve got a meeting with the faculty head, then I’m going to be interviewed on TV. About my article on the Middle East.”
“What? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I just heard yesterday, then I forgot.”
He got up to unplug the kettle and pour it. “Channel twelve. Well, it’s not really an interview. It’s a panel thing, on the Middle East. They want a ‘big picture’ guy.” He giggled. “I’ve never been accused of that before, but I think I like it. I want to wear a spacesuit, and say: ‘Well, Fred, the view from orbit is…’ Ah,” he said, stirring the coffee and inhaling the aroma. “I don’t know how people got through the Middle Ages.” He sat down. “This is nice. What’s this?” he asked, picking up a scrap of paper.
“Bits of Stephen’s notebook.”
“Ahh, the Rosetta stone of middle class observation… What’s it say?” He peered at it, then took a sip of coffee, turning the other scraps of paper around so he could see them. “Ah. Well, at least we come off all right…”
“Do you think – he’s okay?”
Alder shrugged. “He’s a funny kid. Verrry into right and wrong. Probably’d have been fairly high up in the Spanish Inquisition.” He sighed. “Ethics is always at war with imperfection. He’s going to have it rough if he doesn’t throttle back.”
Joanne’s eyes narrowed slightly. “He’s very good though. Himself, I mean.”
“Sure, he’s screwed down really tight. It’s odd; I mean we’re not hippies, but we’re not right-wing PTA nuts either. I think he’s got a kind of inner tyrant, never lets him steal any cookies. I’d love to see some missing though – wouldn’t you?”
“I don’t know…” said Joanne. “When I was getting up, he was crying in his sleep.”
“Huh,” said Alder, making a face and glancing at his coffee. He sighed. “Well, I lose the sugar wars again,” he said, spooning some into his mug.
Joanne waited for a moment, staring at Alder. Nothing.
“Have you ever heard of that?” she asked softly. “Crying in your sleep?”
He shrugged. “I did it when I was a kid a couple of times, to punish my mom.”
“You think he was faking?”
“Can you cry in your sleep? Really? I – don’t think so.” He grinned, smacking his lips. “Mmm. Sugar… Now I’ll be wired all morning!” Then he frowned. “Do you want to come to the studio for my panel thing? What did you say you were doing with your day?”
Joanne smiled tenderly, sadly, and touched her growing belly.
“I’m leaving you, Alder.”