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Papier Mâché

Papier Mâché

“What is this?” I asked, sitting at the wobbly-legged breakfast table huddled in the corner of our kitchen. I had the mail from yesterday and this morning’s paper lying across the table. The red painted nail of my middle finger was pointing to a fine print section in the Wednesday Half Moon Bay Review. I’d stopped flipping through the pages when my freshly licked thumb stuck to a section of words. The personal ad was followed by a familiar phone number.

 

The number was the one we used when we’d stay at the lake cabin over the kids’ winter break. The ugly off white telephone had a cord that was tangled in at least six different places and served as a replacement for cell phones because reception was non-existent out there. It had always been one of my favorite family events, but when Callie had been 16 she’d grumbled about spending her vacation with the family instead of getting to watch movies with her friends and boyfriend. Devin had told her that family came first and she’d objected saying that, “her friends were going to make memories without her!” Devin retaliated with, “Family is always going to be there for you. Friends are not.”

 

I rustled the paper around to remind Devin that he had to answer. When he didn’t reply, I repeated myself more slowly. “What. Is. This?” Having just walked in, Devin looked a little surprised and a flash of concern might have crossed his face, but he certainly didn’t act like he knew what I was talking about. Bambi, the twelve-year-old Dachshund the kids had picked out together, wiggled her fat sausage of a body at his feet. He slipped his coat over the peg and dropped his keys in the bowl by the door. Sitting down to begin unlacing his shoes he spoke. “I don’t know. What is it?” He wasn’t making eye contact. My heart was beating nervously in my chest and I knew his had to be beating just as hard. For years we’d been drifting apart, but I had no idea the gap between us was so large.

 

There’d been a time where Devin and I thought of nothing but each other. We’d met as sophomores in college. He used to wear plaid shorts and button up short-sleeved shirts every day the weather allowed it. He used to run the night show for the college radio station. He had always been the best listener, perhaps from all the years of being in charge of the music. For our first anniversary he bought me a new scrabble game. He’d remembered from a conversation we’d had months before about how I’d grown up camping and playing board games on the weekends. He used to take me out to dinner every Wednesday night. After the kids came it was all about Callie’s ballet recitals and Benny’s basketball games. Abby was quieter; she entered spelling bees and liked to bake. Devin and I were always there to cheer them on. We knew various French terms for the footwork we’d watch Callie perform and I knew the difference between all purpose flour and cake flour. Devin knew all there was to know about basketball games. When the kids sold lemonade at the corner of the street, Devin and I bought a pitcher full. When Christmas rolled around, Devin and I wrote letters from Santa to each of the kids. When the kids had a bad day, Devin would take them out for ice cream while I made their favorite dinner.

Now Devin was a somebody – he worked at the Law Office of Alan M. Philips in town serving the second home owners who’d come on sunny weekends to sit on the beach and drink sodas out of glass bottles and beers from Germany – but apparently he wasn’t my somebody anymore. I read, reading each letter out slowly, gazing over the newspaper at him, “SWM seeking SWF for FTA. Must have GSOH and be WTR IRL. Must not mind BHM. Like walks, graveyards, soliloquies, dachshunds.” In case he thought he had a chance of getting me to think it might not have been his ad, I recited the phone number he’d left at the bottom of the page without needing to check to be sure I had the numbers right. His phone number. My phone number. Our phone number.

He didn’t respond right away. The silence seemed fitting. There were no words that could fill the space between us. We’d gone too long, let it get too far. The room wasn’t tense with emotion, this had been coming. I’d seen it. I knew. I’d held on so long to the past that the present had almost ceased to exist.

 

The youngest of our three children had graduated college in the spring, but back when the nest first emptied I’d taken up art. The girl’s room was converted to my own miniature art studio, still complete with a bunk bed and pale pink walls. Where there had once been posters of teenage boy bands I’d hung my own easel and displayed some of my finished work. I’d left the papier mâché masks we’d each made one March back when the kids were still in elementary school mounted on the wall. In one corner I kept my sculpting supplies and in another my equipment for working with stained glass.

By the time Callie left home for college at UCLA there was tension. Callie hadn’t been an easy teenager. She was the one I’d find sneaking back in through her window at seven in the morning on school nights. Callie had been the one to steal glasses of vodka from the cabinet and fill the bottles back up with water. Callie had been the one to scream about how we didn’t love her as she took off running down the street into the August night. She’d come home, of course, crying; scared. Devin had sat up waiting for her that night, but when she finally let herself in all he could manage to tell her was, “Go to sleep, Callie.” He’d practically paced a hole in the living room floor waiting to hear the steps up to the front door creak under the weight of her feet. At four o’clock in the morning I’d finally gotten him to sit down in the La-Z-Boy and drink a cup of peppermint tea. He still got up to check the window every minute and a half. Earlier in the night he’d ranted on about how to handle Callie’s behavior. He’d been ready to call in the psychiatrists and at one point in time he’d snapped and threatened to send Callie to a school for troubled kids if she didn’t get her act together.

When Callie left I thought the tension would disappear but instead it grew. Devin wanted more — more vacation time, more salary. He wanted me to spend more time making him better food and do a better job cleaning up the yard, since I’d always been a stay at home mom and now had one less kid to care for. I told him that if he couldn’t slow down and stop focusing on himself, there wouldn’t be anything left for him to have. He worked longer hours and started spending weekends away with the boys. Benny and Abby were old enough by then to comprehend the growing discomfort. One night as I walked down the hallway on my way to bed I overheard Abby crying. I could hear her whispering to a friend through the phone lines, complaining about Devin and me and all the fighting we’d been doing. I ignored the ache in my stomach and the goose bumps that emerged on my arms and walked to my room. I cried for a long time, torn between standing up for myself and giving in to what Devin wanted. I told him that night when I lay in my indented spot on the mattress and after all my tears had dried, that we were hurting the children.

After Abby left for college the boy’s room had been transformed into a weight room for Devin. All of his co-workers were gaining muscle and Devin wasn’t gaining anything. His children were leaving, and each day I only grew more distant. After Abby left he’d redecorated Benny’s room and slapped a mirror he’d bought at Target up on the wall away from the window. He installed one of those infomercial full-body work out machines, a treadmill, a television, and a shelf to store his collection of weights. Before Thanksgiving of Abby’s freshman year rolled around Devin had given up on working out. The room’s only purpose was to gather dust.

 

As I waited for Devin to answer my question I looked around the room. We’d built the house ourselves, or at least, dreamed up an idea for an architect to design and a builder to make. The wall on the Western side of the kitchen was all windows. A set of French doors opened up onto the patio where Abby’d broken her arm when she was two. She’d tripped running up the stairs carrying an armful of seashells. At the hospital the doctor had to pluck the shattered pieces of individual shells from her wrist. She’d asked for a pink cast. Out past the deck was the yard where Benny and Devin had spent hours playing baseball. The stack of bases sit alongside the house still, next to an abandoned pile of statue horses, and a kid’s kitchen set. I tell everyone I’m saving it for the grandkids. Really, I’m saving it for myself.

 

Finally I whispered, “Devin.” He sighed. Slipped his shoes under the bench. Ran his hands through his hair. Unbuttoned the top three buttons of his light blue shirt. Sighed again. “Devin,” I said, this time more forcefully. He rubbed the heels of his hands against his eyes.

When he finally looked up at me his eyes were red. “What do you want me to say?”

 

From the master bedroom of the three-story house you could just make out the ocean. On quiet fall nights Devin and I used to sit up reading books together. He used to quote old song lyrics to me after going for walks down the beach. The kids would be bundled in sweaters and scarves playing out ahead of us while Bambi would race on ahead to check on the kids before galloping back to us snorting and yipping the whole way. After our walks we’d settle the kids in for the night and just sit with one another, talking. Reading. Sleeping, his arm draped across my torso keeping me warm against the ocean breeze through the open window. I liked the smell and sound too much to shut the glass.

 

That night I lay awake in the empty bottom bunk that had once belonged to Callie. The oldest had long since moved out, and no traces of her childhood remained in the room. The sheets were white and the quilt was something I’d made when Devin and I had first moved in, long before there was a thought of children. Bambi snored from the stained rug at the foot of the bed. Children’s paint and washable markers never were as “washable” as they claimed to be. The window was closed.

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