Ellen in Yellow
As I stand in the bathroom, postponing, I look out the window down the red tin roofline and drop my sight to the garden: the lilac too young for flowering, the vigorous mulberry pushing up through the overgrown canopy, the firethorn ringed by ivy. I follow the trunk of the unpruned apple up its branches as they entwine with the oak by the fence and the neighbors’ maple that leafs over the boundary.
I’m looking for the cardinals. That's the way I think of them, as a couple. Oddly, they don’t seem to winter here, though they’re not migratory. I put out food in the feeder throughout the winter months, but I only see then in the spring and summer. They simply appear, swaying on a maple branch, flitting around the apple, hanging on the feeder or picking at the ground below it.
In first grade in New England, I colored within in the blue-purple mimeographed lines that depicted winter residents. But cardinals in the flesh and feather are completely different from those stiff, crude approximations: surprisingly lithe and fanciful, and it is a pleasure to follow their colors’ dance among the greens. It's hard not to take them for a sign.
Today I don’t see them. Instead, I bend to check for the reddish tinge. It's hardly noticeable. I wouldn’t notice it except that I’ve trained myself to see even though I don’t want to. Over the next hours I will hope and despair, and rock back and forth between these extremes until the evidence becomes incontrovertible, and even then I will hear a whisper within myself that in some cases bleeding continues for the first month or two. By now I know all my tricks.
On the toilet tank, the box of prenatal vitamins in their plastic wrappers, individually secreted like monks in their cells. Impossible to break off, to peel back the foil on the other side with awkward morning fingers. I’ve gone through one box already, and I’m halfway through this one. Useless, a reminder like the thermometer on my bedside table, the charts of dots and circles, the line rising upward, then falling, that you study like tea leaves, as if it contains the answer to your future, to who you are and what is true.
Every time I tell myself I’m not going to cry, there’s no point, but every time, I wipe my fingers and the howls break from me. It's best if there’s no one else in the house, like now, and I can go ahead and make all the noise I care to. I sob, I howl like a dog.
And indeed, as if an cue, our 13-year-old Mirrie, the dog of our early marriage and now mostly deaf nevertheless senses the disturbance, and moves uneasily to the head of the stairs, where she takes up her position, keeping watch for whatsoever might sweep up the steps to harm me.
I already had the detour in mind before I took the paintings up to Rosette’s in October and she surprised me with the child question. We were sitting in the kitchen behind the showroom with the cast-iron stove and the old-fashioned porcelain sink with the built-in drainboard. She had looked over my work and made her selections (the smallest and least expensive, that she thought she could move, which disappointed me but which I could accept, as I always did), and set down a heavy ceramic mug of tea on the maple table. She asked me how I was, how Weston was, and I answered her, and then she came out with it. “What about kids? You trying?”
If I hadn’t already burned my tongue on the tea, I would have now. Some thirty years ago, Rosette had fled her life and shed her family in New York for her haven in the Berkshires, though it was hardly anything more than a leaky cabin then. She’d slipped out in the middle of the night, the rumor went, calling collect in the morning from Kingston to proclaim her everlasting independence. Her daughter hadn’t spoken to her in years, a rift only recently and tentatively healed, and the two boys were hardly more trusting. The friend who had introduced us said that in the beginning Rosette had had to carry water from the creek and boil it on the cast-iron stove. Rosette herself has lots of stories about those days. In addition to being still fairly young and flirtatious and thus able to secure the services of several local men to fix her roof or carry water for her, she turned out to be savvy enough on the business end to make it work, and her little gallery has become a stop on the route.
“I never had any doubt, honey,” she tells me by way of instruction. “That was other people’s problem.”
All I could do was babble, “Uh, uh, no.”
“What, you don’t want to, or some crazy doctor tell you can’t?” she continued.
“No, nothing like that,” I said, looking down at my tea.
“How old are you, honey?” she said gently. “Don’t wait too long.”
It was a sore point. I knew this was something I was supposed to take care of, a duty I’d been derelict in attention to. For much of my life, too many other adventures beckoned, a bohemian life, what I believed to be the demands of art, and once I found Weston, a comfortable intimacy I was afraid to upset. His love for wilderness brought me back to my childhood explorations of the woods and meadows near my home; he took me into landscapes I had only dreamed about, that sucked self-consciousness away. Meanwhile life intervened: a series of jobs, neither of us in fields which offered much financial security.
It was never an easy thing to talk about since we always ended up at the same old impasse: Weston for, in a general way, but not terribly convincingly, or at least not convincingly enough to me, and me playing devil’s advocate, but neither of us impassioned enough to bring along the other. So we would go around in circles, annoyed and angry with the other for not breaking the logjam.
And Rosette was right; we kept getting older.
I found myself staring at the purple and white tie-dyed sunburst on Rosette’s tee-shirt as I searched for the language for what I wanted to ask.
“The pictures,” Rosette said, intuiting me, leaning in across the table. “They’re good. Like this place. All very nice. But nothing to compare to the people,” she waved her hand.
The man I loved when I was in college grew up in the Hudson River Valley. I’d driven into the town some years ago, and purely by accident, turning into a roadside fruit stand, recognized a familiar name on a street sign. He’d never brought me there; I remembered the address from some letters I’d sent him, long ago. I’d turned down the road and passed the house, then drove off. What could be the harm, I thought, of driving by one more time?
The road dipped into a leafy valley, rose slightly, then forked into two dirt tracks that continued up the mountain. On the first pass I was nervous, drove by too fast. I turned around at the fork and climbed back up, driving as slowly as I dared. Along the front of the house stretched a sort of solarium, long, slightly concave panels of glass, curving into each other at the seams, giving a pillowed effect. This was as before. But now the space seemed disused, oddly bare; a big slab marked “Tyvek” was propped up against the glass surrounded by a jumble of unrecognizable debris.
The number on the mailbox was gone, but “351” appeared in metal digits over the garage door. It seemed an unsolvable mystery how a house once identified by a single number could have taken on two additional digits, unless the town decided to reverse the direction of the numbering, assigning the low ones to the houses tucked into the foothills of the mountain. Or maybe it was just one of those markers that time erects to remind you that things are not as they were before.
How many times could I do this before someone got suspicious and thought I was casing out the joint for a robbery or other nefarious intent? If someone confronted me, how would I explain myself? Although hardly likely, the idea made me shrink, as if I really was trespassing, transgressing where I knew damn well I’d be better off not to go. On the wheel, my hands were shaking, and in my stomach the same churn of anxiety and excitement I remembered before knocking on the door to his room. To top it off, I had to take a wicked pee.
With him, it could be wonderful, it could be terrible, you never could predict. He might be happy about something, or glad to see me, or he could be sullen and withdrawn, sarcastic and cutting. No matter; he aroused a longing in me, physical certainly but also something more urgent and painful. I believed that underneath his rejection was something else, a subterranean passion. Even when it hurt, I wanted to stay by him, and I missed him when we were apart.
As much as my life has changed, this has persisted: that longing, deep and pure blue-black as a kettle-hole in a marsh, what seems like solid land giving way to water, one step too far and you’re in over your head. I should drain it, fill it up with concrete, and pave it over, only it is from this source that I have extracted my best work.
At the road, I do my turnaround for one more pass. This time, only a few yards past the house, I notice another change, a sign for a rail trail. I’m probably not supposed to, but I figure walking by the house and down the trail to slip behind a tree won’t take long enough to get me into any trouble.
It’s a sunny day, warm, with a few wispy transparent clouds moving fast. The leaves are turning. I walk from the road into the speckled light. The trail’s a little muddy and the sides of my flimsy flats are already becoming encrusted. The smell is fecund, moist and humid.
On the other side of the embankment to my left, the edge drops away where a stream cuts an increasingly sharp gorge, in the clove and hollow manner of the Catskills. To the right, I peer through a screen of young maples to the crabbed forms of pruned apple trees and realize that I can probably see into the backyard of the house from here.
Not that it’s his anymore; he lives in San Francisco, with a wife and two daughters. All day long he spends in a lab, parsing the mysteries of the genome. We are in touch sporadically; I write him the occasional letter or email. He replies sometimes. He’s busy trying to earn tenure, there’s his family, and he claims he has never been much of a correspondent.
When we were in college and I wrote him in the summers, he wrote me three letters back one year, and none the next. I was on this art program in Rome, and I was miserable not hearing anything, nothing at all, from him. When we got back to campus, I marched over to his room. Somehow I had the courage to tell him I was hurt, that I didn’t know where that left us. As if there was really an “us.” We sat for a long time in silence. Finally, one of his suitemates knocked on his door, took one look, and offered us a beer. He started laughing then, the man I was in love with.
“The look of pity on your face!” he exclaimed. I laughed too, though it was forced. Though neither of us drank very much, we took the beers, and I remember that for the first time I liked the taste. The suitemate retreated, closing the door.
The man I loved turned to me then and said, “It doesn’t make any sense to avoid each other.” My heart flew up that he had declined to pick up the gauntlet I’d thrown down. I was young, inexperienced; that was all the affirmation I required that afternoon, and as I remember, we went off to dinner together.
There was never an “us,” outside of some moments, some evenings, in one or another’s room. Never in public. Once we were dancing and he grabbed me close—no one more surprised and delighted than me—but when his roommate came back unexpectedly, he pushed me away quickly. I met his family briefly, once, at graduation. He managed to slip away when I would have introduced him to mine.
My crazy dreams of marrying science to art in him and me! In my senior year, I did a series of paintings based on the pictures he brought me from the lab, nature revealed as abstract surrealist, we used to joke. For a moment, I want to feel his presence so badly that I think I might scream. My breath comes quickly and I feel light-headed. Standing there in the mud of the rail trail, it occurs to me for the first time to wonder what I am looking for, what do I expect to find? For all I knew his parents don’t even live here anymore.
There seemed to be no one else coming along right then, so I climbed the bank to the left and squatted. I’d been holding it in so long that I had to make an effort to force it out. I was barely able to pull my jeans back up before a jogger came by, glancing at me quizzically as I shuffled back down the embankment.
I had two lovers before Weston. Two lovers and this man who was my lover for one glorious night. In college my female friends and I used to like to listen Janis Joplin sometimes, just to hear a woman’s voice, particularly a woman’s voice like that. We were middle-class white girls and then I didn’t know about the raunchy blues woman tradition. Janis Joplin was the nearest I got. In an introduction to one of the songs —“Piece of my Heart” maybe? “Get It While You Can”? — she says, I’m simplifying a little here, “Maybe you want a cat for 365 days, but you only got a cat for one day. Well, that one day, that better be your whole life, man.” For a long time, that one night was my whole damn life.
I remember my other lovers fondly, I’m grateful for what they gave me, and I wish them well. They don’t haunt me, though, like this one who wasn’t really my lover. I’m not tramping furtively behind their childhood houses, looking for non-existent clues, to what? I start to laugh and before I can help it, I’m crying, standing there, right smack in the middle of the rail trail. I start walking, jabbing at my eyes desperately with a wadded up piece of tissue I manage to dig out of my pocket.
All along I’m feeling what a heel I am, that Weston would be far from pleased if he knew I was here. He’d rather not know, and I won’t tell him. As best I can, I try to keep reminders of my past from him, at his request, and really he knows anyway, he can hear it, that kettle-hole of longing in my voice, see it in my face when I mention this man’s name. He turns away, as if the word itself is something he needs to spit out. I would gladly grant him equal time to mourn break-ups with his old girlfriends, the losses or missed opportunities necessary for him to be with me. It would make me feel better, only I don’t think he cares to. I believe he considers me the love of his life.
By the time I get back toward the car, the tissue has crumbled into little flecks and I’m dropping them like a trail of breadcrumbs. I take a deep breath, start up the road. I try to go slowly, but my habitual gait is fairly fast. As I near the house, despite my proximity, I can’t see anything I haven’t from the car: there’s the sunken garage door, the overhang with two windows and peaked roof, the front door and its walkway, then the solarium, Tyvek propped up against the glass, and the clutter at the base that I can’t make out. Then the two pine trees, and I’ve gone too far to see without craning back around, which I prevent myself from doing.
I turn around by the fruit stand, and start back down. I wonder where his room was, his bed, the place he dreamed and touched himself. The overhang with the two windows that faces the street? Or somewhere tucked back in the middle of the house, where I can’t see? I doubt he had his own room; he must have shared with his brother. Where did he take a shower, eat breakfast, dinner, do his homework? I want to know all this, but the house won’t ever tell me.
And what if it could? I’ve walked past the house again, but suddenly I’m thinking of Weston, how known he is to me, and how he holds me despite what he’s heard in my voice, what he’s seen in my eyes. Despite my distraction here.
The man I loved was not cruel by nature, but young and afraid. I believe he’s a good husband and father; at least he enthusiastically reports on the experience. The force that brought me prostrate before him nothing he could trust. One minute he was walking on solid ground, and the next neck-deep in a kettle-hole he hadn’t even suspected was there. But even so, could it be right to call this man, and not Weston, the love of my life?
I returned to the car, unlocked it, got in, and drove off on my way. The sun was just beginning to set as I got on the Taconic, and it completed the action in the time it took me to reach my exit at I-84. As I drove, I watched in glimpses from the side and in my rearview mirror the rays of yellow and red stain the landscape golden and rose. If one of those glances could be made into a snapshot — I hope this doesn’t sound too cheesy — it would be impossible to tell if it was sunrise or sunset. Perhaps I’d really made up my mind back at the rail trail. If so, the resolution hardened as I watched that sun set, step by step.
I drove through the darkening evening with a quickening bubbling through my blood. The less picturesque parts of the drive were ahead of me—interminable New Jersey—and I was eager to be home already, and yet the multi-lanes and the lights, the giant sodium haze that hangs over that part of the northeast seemed right somehow, so I drove, singing along with the radio, punching to a new station when commercials came on, too impatient to listen to one singer, one band.
I got home close to eight. I brought my stuff in. Weston had been cooking, and he came out of the kitchen in his old brown sweater, the sleeves pushed up. I buried my face in that wooly texture that smelled of him and of faint traces of garlic and red pepper. And then, I didn’t think whether or not it was wise, but I blurted it out, I’d decided, yes, I’d like to have a child with him.
At that moment I realized that I hadn’t fully imagined his reaction. Hadn’t he been the one who’d always taken the “for” position in our arguments? Even though I wasn’t always sure he’d thought it through, I never could have anticipated what actually happened.
He didn’t say anything at first, just sort of sat there absorbing. I wanted him to grab me, say “That’s great, honey, I’m so happy,” that sort of thing, but I let him have the silence, and it grew deeper, rippled out into the room beyond us. I waited. Finally, he bent down to kiss me and returned to the kitchen. I could have cried out, but I held my tongue.
Later that night, we settled against each other in bed, and I thought it might be all right. As he perched above me I said, “Should I leave the diaphragm out?” and he stuttered, “Ahh. No-o-oo.”
At first I held myself very still. Finally I was able to open the drawer, put my fingers on the smooth, indented plastic and even extract the diaphragm from the case. But after that I froze, staring at the shadow of my hands on the candlelit wall, the tube of jelly in one hand, the rubber bowl in the other, unable for the longest time to turn the tube over and to squeeze.
It went on like that for a while. I grew more distracted. I wanted him to come to an honest decision on his own, but I couldn’t help myself, now I was scared. An irrational, superstitious kind of panic. It was my fault, I thought. My punishment for being insufficiently committed would doom us as a couple. I could hardly admit it to myself, but I became convinced that if we failed to conceive a child I would fall into a kettle-hole from which no one would be able to extract me. I was afraid Weston would just keep putting it off and then it would be too late. I tried to remember how he was the one who all those years maintained he wanted children, told myself that it was unlikely he’d make such a complete turnaround. But that was thin comfort because I had.
One evening, while he was chopping meat for a stir-fry, I brought a stool over to the kitchen table, poured myself a glass of wine. I watched his hands, the knife coming down on the cutting board, cleaving the planes between sinew and muscle. I kept turning over and over in my mind how to ask him what he was thinking, if he was thinking, intending to evoke the what he might or might not be thinking about by not speaking it. His hands paused for a moment; then he laid the knife down, turned to me.
“I need to write down some stuff —” he trailed off.
“So when, then?” I asked.
“By the end of the year,” he offered. I swirled the red wine in my glass. I took a drink, felt the astringent sensation in my throat.
The new year. Two months. It should seem I could get through that. But right then it seemed a long way away.
The next weekend, he left on Thursday morning for a conference and wasn’t due back until mid-afternoon on Sunday. It was an oddly warm day for mid-November, what we called “Indian summer” when I was growing up. A last gasp of warmth. I walked the dog, ate breakfast, busied myself with straightening up the house. As I worked, the more I wanted him to return, the more I wanted to be outside, to go on a hike, just walk in the sunshine and the leaves.
I was a slightly morbid child, when I think about it now, and I loved the fall best out of the seasons mostly for its metaphor: the glorious burst of beauty just before death. I am less romantic now. I no longer press autumn leaves between pieces of wax paper, but I can’t resist collecting horse chestnuts when I find them, glossy and smooth mahogany brown, and setting them on the windowsill of my studio as if they will not grow dull, shriveled and cracked. I still carve a pumpkin for Halloween, if one I buy that day, or one or two before.
When Weston finally arrived, there was the usual hauling his bags in from the car, the usual narrative, how did it go, the terrific speakers, the dud of a session, the people hung out with and those gossiped about. We sat on the couch. I faced him, my feet pulled up under me, listening. He sat straight, feet stretched out in front of him, turned slightly toward me. I ran through a list of questions in my mind.
He needs me to ask questions. In the first years of our marriage, he complained bitterly at my habit of coming home and immediately spilling out the details of my day. I like to get this over and done with, while the memory’s fresh, and then move on, not to have to think about it later. He does not offer up what’s on his mind so easily. Left to his own devices, it tends to come out suddenly, in an unexpected burst late in the evening, when we’re walking the dog or as we’re getting ready for bed. I’m tired by then, and I find it harder to respond. So I have learned to ask him first, and he has learned to answer.
This time he told me that the wrong directions had been given to the monastery where the opening night reception had been held. Why they had decided to have a party at a monastery he didn’t say, but he told me about driving around Long Island, a completely unfamiliar environment, with the darkness coming on. He said that though he was totally lost, really, once he realized the directions he’d been given weren’t right, he began to navigate by instinct, and that eventually by that instinct he found the place. It was a clear night, one of those times when as the light leaches out, the sky keeps deepening from turquoise to azure through royal to lapis, with only just a rim of yellow, then orange, at the horizon. Without clouds, sunset is swift: one minute the landscape before you is perfectly discernable, then eclipsed. Through the darkness, when it fell, he recognized a faint, contained glow near the southern horizon. His sense of direction, which is strong, told him that haze was in the exact place where the monastery must be.
Now my restlessness found its outlet. I untucked my legs, stood up and pulled on his arm, “Come on, let’s go.”
We didn’t have much daylight, but we decided to get away from the houses, so we whistled for Mirrie, got in the car and drove to the path through the woods by the creek.
It was the same sort of late afternoon Weston had just described, the sky a pure blue, unmarked by clouds. Mirrie tugged on the leash in my right hand; excited and happy to be outside, she barked, sniffed and trotted along, tail in the air. Grey around the muzzle for years, and now deaf, her breath is labored, audible, when she sleeps. But out on the trail she might as well be in second puppyhood, pure dogdom.
We fell into our usual walking rhythm. Most of the leaves were already down, and we swished through piles of reds and yellows. There must have been something in the atmosphere, transparent clouds we hadn’t made out before, because as we walked, pink and salmon-colored streaks appeared above us, reaching up from the horizon, and the altered, slightly eerie light dropped down onto the mosaic on the ground in front of us. I thought of plainchant, evensong. Then we came around a bend into a slight hollow, a canopy of yellow, the last bits of sun filtering through a grove of tall maples whose leaves, protected from winds by the highlands above, had not yet dropped. We slowed our pace, hooked hands. It was quiet, wonderfully quiet.
Weston and I were married by a justice of the peace in Tucson, Arizona. In a corner of the justice’s office hung an enormous Boston fern, all the more impressive in the desert. I was nervous and started babbling on about it. We were really married, though, by our trips into the wilderness. By the myriad of growing things around us: swamp maples, birches, pines, ferns and moss. Walking into that canopy of maples that day in mid-November, it was possible to believe that the light itself was our blessing, yellow like love and the bones of happiness.
Alison Hicks is the author of a novella, Love: A Story of Images (2004) and a chapbook of poems, Falling Dreams (2006). She is a winner of fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts in fiction and creative nonfiction, and her work has appeared in a number of journals, including Pearl, The Ledge, Eclipse, and Main Street Rag. She leads community-based writing workshops under the name Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio, www.philawordshop.com