Potluck

 

T H I S    W E E K

WATERSLIDES IN AUXILIARY HOSPITAL WASHROOM by Daniel Thompson

 

Dancing in Winter

Later in the evening, I remembered how I  knew the soft-spoken woman near the patio.  Laura convinced me to join her at the Sidwells' summer party. The bartender  splashed the bar with frosty mojitos garnished  with mint sprigs and lime. Laura  floated throughout the crowd, while I took refuge in a corner seat near Karen Resnick. I didn't know who knew details about me or about how I spent the month of January. My refuge, Karen seemed transfixed by a rotating sprinkler outside.

The party crowd  had emigrated from the Northeast to Florida. The hosts skillfully  separated Yankee fans from the Red Sox crowd. Michael and I weren't big sports fans, but I reminded myself, once again, that Michael's interests had changed.

When Michael accepted a position in the economics department at Palm  Beach County University, we were both excited about the move. "Katie, can you picture us swimming outside in winter?" he said, while Sophie was trying out cartwheels between us in our toy-cluttered living room. Joyfully, we decided to move to Florida.

Laura interrupted my reverie in the corner seat. " Katie, let's bail!"  Her mood began to improve as soon as we cleared the Sidwell property. "The party was a dud, but at least you went, Katie," she said as she nearly skipped to her silver Nissan.

I had met Laura at one of Michael's boring faculty parties, and she and I had clicked, bonded,  [insert any cliche for platonic love at first sight]. She'd been in and out of a short marriage and was finishing her Ph.D at Palm County U. Although I was eager to return home to Sophie, Laura was my driver, and she pulled into the Blue Moon Lounge without checking with me. A suburban summer party was one thing; entering a pick-up joint was another.

Luckily, there were few people at the bar. The bar itself was a rusty granite that reminded me of the kitchen in our old home up north.  The bartender looked to be the age of your average prom date. Laura, who never missed an opportunity to charm,  straightened up and asked the bartender his name. She then asked Chris for two chardonnays,  and I interjected that I would have a Pelligrino with ice and lime. "You know I can't drink with my meds, " I hissed under my breath. Our rapport had the intense sister-like closeness that allowed for endless hisses, corrections and nudgings. "Oh Katie,  we're celebrating! One glass of wine is not going to have you keel over on the floor."   "So m'am, what will it be?"  

 "Oh no," I thought . " That m'am  thing." Do I look my age or is it simply southern manners? I sipped my sparkling water, worrying that Sophie might not like her babysitter, but kept myself from sending texts. Sophie was smart enough to grab the sitter's cell if things were too uncomfortable.

We moved to Florida in the summer so Sophie could start school with her third grade class. Michael had found our Florida home close to the university. It took me a while to adjust to the pastels in our neighborhood - so many houses painted like Easter eggs, so unlike "up north,"  as everybody called the entire Northeast.

Our new home was in walking distance from the beach, and the three of us rarely missed an evening strolling along the water's edge.  Should I have savored those precious moments more,  or would they have been been tinged with horror and terror had I known what was coming?

Laura dropped me off to a very relieved Sophie. It's not that she didn't like the babysitter, whose name I had trouble remembering. It's more that these days, Sophie can't hide her need for  me under her rolled eyes and shoulder shrugs. After I whispered good night to her, as she pulled her knees to her chest,  I  remembered the name of the woman on the Sidwell's patio - Elena.

"You look good, Katie. Don't be nervous about meeting my colleagues, " Michael said while squeezing my knee. We were en route to the party where I met Laura. She steered me on to a window seat and revealed herself to me from the moment I sat down. She had a wide-eyed, almost vacant look, as she paid close attention to my responses , drawing me out and relaxing me amidst Michael's colleagues.

I noticed Michael giving his attention to a man and woman nearly as tall as he. Although never in the military, Michael presented himself with the command presence of a soldier. Michael laughed aloud, and I was relieved that he, too, was enjoying himself. Earlier, he had steered me away from a German professor and his severe - looking wife, warning me that they were pretentious and boring. Many of the professors were stiff and self-important, making me doubly glad Laura had reached out to me.

"Who  were those tall people you were talking to? " I asked Michael on our way home.

"They're in my department, " he said in a neutral tone.

I tried to ignore the tightening in my chest. The absence of detail struck me as weird. I thought about Sophie and how this move might affect her.  She feigned sleep when we arrived home from the party.

During our walk along the water's edge the first day of winter, Sophie's cartwheels matched the scurrying of the sand pipers. "Daddy, you're not paying attention!" she  wailed with the vehemence of the confident only child. I didn't need Sophie to draw my attention to the  remote chilliness of her dad's mood. Michael tickled her and she squealed with delight, and her brown eyes locked on me lovingly. Confident of her dad's affection, she didn't try to short me in any way. She never did.  

 I whispered to Michael that Sophie would surely sleep well and squeezed his hand trying to stoke the spark between us. I also decided to buy a dazzling new dress for New Year's Eve.The hinting didn't create the closeness I had hoped for, as Michael worked in his office,  even after Sophie had fallen asleep.

After my family was gone the next day,  I drove to the mall surrounded by palm trees and lush with blooming hibiscus plants and bougainvillea. I found the dress I had imagined within the first hour. I loved the way it clung to me and cinched my waist,  but I needed another's opinion. The sales woman assured me that the dress was flattering and stylish, and I made a decision to model it for Michael.

No rustic bridges or ivy lined walls surround Palm County U. It shines  with the pastels of our neighborhood, complete with hurricane-proof glass and sturdy new buildings. After finding an area to change into my new dress, I approached Michael's office. His secretary, a retired school teacher with a silver helmet of hair, stood up and thrust her arm forward like a crossing guard. " Dr. Mike can not see you right now. He's  working with a student on his dissertation". Her hesitant speech and darting eyes belied her words.

That evening,  I grilled Michael about his day, whom he saw, what he was working on. My intensity shone through or his secretary spoke of my visit. "You know, Katie."

"Know what?" I stammered, spilling coffee on my favorite blue blouse. "That there's someone else. It's Tara, isn't it!" I screamed referring to the long-legged  woman from the faculty party. I had since learned she was his assistant in the business school.

"No" I whispered, trying to shield myself from the truth that he had spoken,  the probable rupture of our marriage. " Maybe if we hadn't moved here, " I said desperately,  as he rinsed his coffee cup and looked at me, his brown eyes so like our daughter's. "But Michael....Sophie's first steps...You were there!" I wailed as I threw my cup into the sink, bent over as if struck by a baseball bat.

During the week that followed, I was unable to sleep and became disorganized, disheveled and morose. I knew that Sophie needed me as strongly as she had as an infant. But I lost control. I began drinking heavily, catching only fragments of sleep, pacing around the house. I cried uncontrollably, squelching the sounds so Sophie wouldn't hear me.

I have vague memories of Laura and Michael strapping me into the car and windshield wipers flapping with a rapid swooshing sound. I remember bright lights, blankets and a nurse with a large needle. Questions, endless questions,  from strangers treading softly around me.

The medicine lulled me into the blackened quiet of sleep. "Katie, you are in a hospital," Aubrey Brant, M.D., said to me. His name tag hung loosely from his white coat. "Do you wish to hurt yourself or anyone else?" He asked me with a dignified British accent. My eyes drooped, and my mouth felt like cotton candy as I nodded   "No." At no time, before or since, had I lied so completely." Where's Sophie?" I croaked. " With her father," Dr. Brant assured me.

Moments later, a nurse dressed in a drab orange smock escorted me to my first inpatient group meeting. En route,  I wondered if she had chosen that color to remind us we were in jail.  Although my senses were numbed with meds,  I knew the best way to return to Sophie was to cooperate with the program.

Each of us was encouraged to share our story - our pain with the group. I couldn't. I wouldn't. "Michael should be here, not me! "  I wanted to shout to the group: "Michael betrayed me!"

 I didn't feel crazy, but knew I must have been to lose control of my role as mother. One evening, the nurse in the orange smock caught me throwing out the meds that were delivered to me;  my name hugging a little plastic cup,  as if that cup could define or defend me.

During Michael's first visit, he delivered the death knell to our marriage, coloring the blows with words -  young, alive, happy. I refused to ask him about Tara: gave him no opening to expand on his newfound joy.

 He brought Sophie with him for a short visit during my second week, and we hugged each other fiercely. Seeing her strengthened my resolve to heal and become strong.

Dr. Brant listened to me. He did not gush or smile at me, but he did listen, his English accent jarring me at times to the present -  to  the endless pain in my soul. He introduced me to Elena one sunny morning in January. Her specialty was dance therapy. She exuded warmth and compassion. Her devotion to her art flowed through her every move, her lilting voice encouraging us to flow along with her.  Most of my classmates moved as stiffly as I. Few smiled. But as the days turned into weeks, the promise of bright skies and laughter, whispering to us through the lyrics of her music, fortified us to heal, to want to sing again.

Group therapy sessions continued. I began to find them comforting and to develop a relationship with the other patients,  ranging from police officers to single mothers.

 While listening to Dr. Brant's melodious voice, I felt movement return to my stiff limbs. Coupled with Elena's dance classes, and our daily walks outside in the January sun, I was beginning to breathe more deeply, and to catch myself giggling and smiling again.

After screaming at Michael the day before my discharge, I called Laura and asked if she would escort me home. She did. I clung to Sophie in the foyer, noticing that my wedding photo no longer stood on the wobbly wooden table on the right. Grabbing on to what poise and dignity I had, with my cotton mouth, glazed eyes and hesitant gait, I walked into my kitchen and stared cooly at my husband, Michael. Although he owned a key to another residence,  he looked comfortable leaning against the bar. He  matched my stare with a steely cold look. How had this happened to us? His look told me that he would not reverse his decision.

 He remained at home with me in our guest bedroom,  moving out only after I became less wobbly, and better able to care for Sophie, and the details of home management. He refused to accept couples' counseling from Dr. Brant or anyone else.

Throughout the spring, I met with Sophie's teachers, attended her sporting events,  and tried to ignore the hollow sounds of our home without her father. I insisted Sophie direct her questions about our new life to her dad, trying desperately to shield her from the depth of my grief.

By the time Laura invited me to join her at the Sidwell's party, I felt slightly less bereft and abandoned, more like the Katie whom I knew, more like myself. I decided I would pay a visit to Elena at the hospital to thank her for her loving work with me and my fellow patients. As I approached her office, I caught a look at myself in  the mirror and saw joy in my reflection. It reminded me of Sophie's joy when she took her first steps. Nimble - footed, I advanced to Elena's office.

"Katie, it's so good to see you." At that moment Dr. Brant walked by, and she beckoned him in. They both treated me warmly. Elena mentioned that I didn't seem to recognize her at the party.
"Delayed reaction. There's a lot of that these days." "I was very surprised to see you with Miss Laura," Elena said fervently.

All the color drained from Dr. Brant's face. He asked me to follow him to his office.

As I sat in the familiar chair,  looking out onto the grounds of the hospital, my mind raced with possibilities. Had Sophie been in an accident? But how would he know that?

 "Katie, Michael and I made the decision to withhold some pertinent information from you. We thought it better for you to carry on that way," his nervousness apparent, his English accent more pronounced. "Michael's love interest attended the party with you this weekend."

I clasped my hand over my mouth, gagging and trying not to scream. "Please tell me you're lying, Dr. Brant!"

"I wish I were," he said gently. " Dear Katie, I wish I were."

 I felt a suffocating suction in my chest. "Are you telling me it's not Tara?" I whispered to Dr. Brant, who had come around his desk and squeezed my shoulders from behind. "It's Laura?"

"Yes, Katie," he whispered quietly.

The late afternoon shadows slanted across the the doctor's office. Dr. Brant sat quietly, while I tried to absorb this blow. My numbed senses felt like the early days of Elena's dance. The taste of betrayal fueled my rage, but whetted my desire to survive. I thought of Sophie's first smile, her first steps. Scorching anger pulsed through me as I made my way out of the hospital to my car. A beam of sunlight blinded my vision, but not my resolve to dance again, to swirl and bend like the palm trees around me, to stretch and grow with my brown-eyed daughter.

 

 

 

Edith G. Boyd is a short story writer from Palm Beach County, Florida. She is married and has one son.