The girls were manning a lemonade stand—a medium-size Dixie cup for fifty cents a cup, or a cup with a Hydrox cookie for seventy-five. Sheila, her older sister, Trudy, and Maggie and Jeannie, ten-year-old twins who lived down the street, sat on folding chairs behind the small card table the twins’ mother had loaned them. The backs of Sheila’s thighs burned from the heat trapped in the metal of her chair. She wore culottes, a combination of miniskirt and shorts. Sometimes she thought of the outfit in the opposite way, as shorts mixed with a miniskirt. But today it was the first version because Maggie and Jeannie were both younger, and because, for once, Trudy was not pressing down on Sheila’s soul as if she were a thumbtack.
The man bought a glass of lemonade. He said, “I have a problem. Maybe one of you girls can help me.” He’d driven up in his car and parked at a reckless angle to the curb, like the boys at school who refused to hang their coats on the hooks provided at the back of the classroom but let them fall to the floor in arrogant puddles. The man said his problem was that he needed to change his clothes. He gestured to Sheila with a wrinkled paper bag that she assumed was filled with his new outfit. He had a job interview, he said. A very important job interview.
“But I need someone to guard the door,” he said.
“Why don’t you change in your car?” Trudy said.
“That wouldn’t be very private,” the man said. “It might be embarrassing.”
Sheila’s body understood first, and then her brain followed, knowledge spreading out like a stain. She could tell by the penitent silence of the younger girls that they could tell something was wrong too. Still, no one screamed “Stranger, Danger!” the way they had been taught.
“Just around the corner,” he said. “There’s a little garden shed, but the door doesn’t lock. Anyone could come in, and that would be embarrassing, wouldn’t it?” The way he repeated the word made Sheila aware that embarrassment was somehow tangled up in pleasure.
“We can’t help you,” Trudy said. She was fourteen.
“Really?” he said. “Not even you?” He looked directly at Sheila.
Sheila was twelve. She wore a halter top and she liked the way the bumps of her new breasts felt against the nylon. The man’s eyes searched her face, but she did not look away. She felt a curious ambivalence about his wrinkled paper bag, and the fact that he wanted to do something bad to her. What was “bad”? she wondered. How bad did a thing have to be before it was something you would never get over for the rest of your life? Two boys rode up on bikes. They asked how much for the cookies. Trudy said you couldn’t buy cookies without lemonade, and the boys began to argue with her. When the boys didn’t leave, the man got into his car and drove away. The little girls burst into giggles, and Trudy told the boys what had happened, exaggerating for effect. Sheila felt the way she did when she took a corner too quickly on her bike and an oncoming car swerved to avoid her; the sip of breath, the way she could see her life and her death at the very same moment. She put her arms across her chest to hold herself.
“What’s wrong with you?” Trudy said.
“It’s a hundred million degrees out here,” The attentions of the boys had unleashed Trudy’s haughty condescension. She told everyone to pack up the stand. “Right away,” she said, like their mother.
Sheila and Trudy walked home, carrying the plastic container half full of lemonade and an unopened bag of cookies. Sheila felt as if everyone were watching her—the lady kneeling by her flower bed, the kids across the street playing Chinese jump rope, even God. She was sure He was watching because something important had happened, some small shift that had a ripple effect. Suddenly, she felt beautiful and much older than she had been ten minutes earlier. She was certain of it. How silly Maggie and Jeannie looked to her, dragging the folding table and chairs across the lawn toward their house. How alive she felt, walking beside her older sister, the summer air touching her back like a warm hand.
“Don’t tell,” Trudy hissed, “or they’ll never let us do anything ever again.”
Sheila agreed to keep silent. She would never tell her parents that, for the first time, she had been taken seriously.
Sheila had been thinking about that long-ago afternoon right before her dog, Patsy tried to kill herself. Sheila and Patsy were making their way through a development about a half hour from Sheila and Colin’s house downtown. The residential area had burst into full-fledged existence the previous year. These shingle-roofed homes, meant to evoke a cleaner, less cumbersome version of the past, were so newly constructed that their pale decks had not yet weathered to an earthen brown. Sheila had chosen this inconvenient location because it was outside the city ordinance and she could walk Patsy without a leash, and because the development came complete with an instantly mature and bucolic woods and a level, litigation-proof pathway. Sheila had undergone bypass surgery four months earlier, a shock at age thirty-seven, and although she was otherwise healthy and her doctors assured her that she could live a “normal life,” she had grown wary. Assumptions that the earth would be there to meet her foot when she put it down, or that her body would remain upright without her expressly willing it to were no longer certain, and she found herself hesitating more than she used to, as though to give the world a chance to announce its true intentions. Sheila had been a springboard diver in high school, and occasionally she dreamed of diving, not of meeting the water, but of the seconds before, when she was suspended and gloriously weightless, when the possibility of disaster was unimaginable. When she woke, looking automatically at Colin, big and comfortably thick beside her in their bed, she wondered at the transparency of dreams.
The path hugged a ravine, and she and Patsy trotted to the edge of the embankment to look down at the stream below. The water moved sullenly; only the light coming through the trees and glancing off the stream’s surface indicated the direction of the current. Sheila inhaled the moist, spoiled odor of the late fall and waited as it mixed with memory, creating a pleasing sorrow for irretrievable things. Patsy sniffed too, but only because that was her nature. Patsy was overweight—more barrel than dog—and Sheila had to suffer the condemnation of neighbors who would stop to inform her that her dog was fat and then list the medical conditions that would befall Patsy as a result of Sheila’s negligence. A childless couple living in a neighborhood of families presented a troubling puzzle. People assumed Sheila must have been careless to have gotten into this situation, and that she needed their help.
Why did Patsy jump? There was no rustle in the bushes to alert the dog to a skunk or gopher, no distant bark to set her hair on end. There was no food below emitting its siren scent—Sheila knew this because she slid down the embankment on her backside to rescue Patsy and did not see a castoff hamburger wrapper or even an apple core.
Sheila carried the forty-pound, bristle-furred mutt to her car and drove to the veterinarian’s office. While the doctor operated, Sheila sat in the waiting room, paging through limp pet magazines, inhaling the ammonia scent of urine mixed with disinfectant. A steady parade of sick animals and solicitous owners came in and out of the office. Sheila knew she should coo at the pets or inquire after their maladies but she was worried about Patsy. Two hours later, the vet appeared from the surgery and informed Sheila that Patsy had broken her two back legs and cracked a rib, but that she would recover fully and return to her “old dog self” in four to six months, give or take a limp.
“Old dog self?” Sheila said.
“You know,” the doctor said, smiling a beat too late, as though she had to remind herself to do it. “Happy, bouncing.”
When she got back home, Sheila phoned Colin at his office. “Patsy tried to kill herself.”
“What?” Colin said, adjusting his voice. It was hard for him to be in two places at once. He worked as an investigator for a law firm, and was used to people shutting doors in his face and threatening to call the police. This created a tentative quality to his daily demeanor, as if he were speaking while walking quickly away. He had been about to leave Sheila for a woman in Seattle when Sheila discovered the problem with her heart.
“She tried to jump off a cliff,” Sheila said.
“You mean she fell?”
“She leaped, Colin. She just leaped!” When she said the words, she felt something open up inside her.
“I don’t understand,” Colin said carefully, “Is she okay?”
“I guess it’s a matter of how you define ‘okay,’ ” Sheila said.
Colin was silent for a moment. “Can we talk about this later?” he said, finally.
“Of course,” she said. Ever since he had told her about his affair and she’d had her surgery, they had tacitly agreed to inhabit a postponed space between “now” and “then,” when discussions would be had and decisions made. Their marriage felt like the waiting room at the vet’s office—everyone trapped in an expectant tense.
When Sheila was young, her mother told her not to go looking for trouble, but that didn’t seem to be good advice. How else would you find it? She envied the boys she knew for whom trouble came in the form of discreet activities. You could steal a car. You could get someone pregnant. You could become a small-time drug dealer in your neighborhood and be able to go to all the best concerts. Boy trouble produced a lot of noise and fuss and trips to the police station. Sheila didn’t really want to drink her parents’ liquor or break into a stranger’s house and rearrange the pictures on the walls. These journeys to peril were round-trips; you always ended up the same person you had been before. Girl trouble, on the other hand, was transformative. You could be driven home by a father after a babysitting gig and let him touch your breasts. You could have a fight with your boyfriend and get out of his car on a lonely road and be picked up by a stranger. You could have sex with a boy in his dorm room while his roommates walked in and out.
Colin had showed up at her door five years earlier to take down a statement regarding the lawsuit one of her colleagues had brought against the school district. The teacher’s name was Frank Gibbons, and he had been fired midsemester after he had left hydrochloric acid out on the lab table overnight. This was his third offense. Colin was collecting information, he said, because the district had to be very careful when they terminated a teacher, especially if that teacher was a minority.
“Frank is white,” she said.
“He has a false leg.”
“I didn’t know that,” Sheila said, intrigued. “Was he in the war?”
“I’m not at liberty to disclose more information,” Colin said.
Colin’s tall and muscled body was squeezed into an ill-fitting suit which made him appear awkward. Sheila answered his questions, which weren’t interesting enough: How long had she known Mr. Gibbons? Did she have any particular dealings with Mr. Gibbons? Had any students ever spoken to her about Mr. Gibbons in her capacity as guidance counselor? He didn’t ask whether or not she thought Frank Gibbons suffered from Asperger’s, or if he ate the same exact lunch every day—a green apple quartered and a crustless tuna fish sandwich. Colin didn’t ask whether she thought he had nefarious intentions when he left the acid lying on the table, knowing that Vanessa LaConte, the remote but brilliant junior with skin the color of espresso beans, would be coming in early the next morning to work on her advanced placement lab. In fact, the interview was over within a few minutes. Colin clicked his pen and handed her his card.
“What should I do with this?” she said.
“In case there is anything else you can think of,” Colin said, stiffly. “And, well, you know, it’s policy.”
“To identify myself.”
Three months later, he arrived again at her door. “They settled the case,” he said.
“In favor of?”
“The school district.”
“So, he didn’t have a leg to stand on, so to speak.”
“It was a farm tractor accident.”
There was something unsettlingly straightforward about him. He was like a toy robot that hits a wall over and over again because all it knows how to do is go forward. She was twenty-seven and had dated wily men. One had stolen a purse from a street vendor and given it to her as a present. Another asked her to wash herself before sex. She would learn that Colin was not good at innuendo and that he was easily hurt by sarcasm, but by that time, she had fallen in love.
“You broke my heart,” she said to Colin through the oxygen mask as the paramedics carried her out of the restaurant where their meal had been interrupted by her sense that an elephant had stepped on her chest. Colin ran alongside the stretcher, clutching her purse, which looked comically small in his big, ex‑quarterback hands. She wished she hadn’t made the joke, because now it would be another thing between them that was misunderstood, like monogamy. At dinner, he’d told her of his affair with a woman he had known in college. They had reconnected on the Internet, he’d said, shaking his head as if he had been kidnapped by the wonder of technology. The woman was divorced with two kids. Sheila asked to see a picture of the children.
Colin hesitated. “It’s over,” he said. “I’m not going to see her anymore.”
But suddenly her request felt crucial. It was the only concrete thing she could think of to do or say, the only way to gain some purchase on this new unsteady terrain of her life. Unhappily, he reached across the table to show her a picture he’d taken on his cell phone during one of his secret trips to Washington. The children were adorable, with hair so blond you could see sunlight reflected on the top of their heads. Colin was not in the picture, of course, but she could imagine him in the picture. It didn’t seem far-fetched to her. In her job at the high school, she sometimes used felt boards and generic family member cutouts to help the kids access their feelings. You could arrange the pieces any way you wanted. The students thought the game was childish but that was the point. As she gazed at the photo on the phone, Sheila began to feel strange, as if all the cells of her body were performing a square dance and were changing partners.
“I don’t understand what’s happening to me,” she said, as she grabbed her left breast.
After Colin finished work, he and Sheila drove to the veterinarian’s office to visit Patsy. The dog wore splints on her hind legs, and lay inert in her cage. Colin started to cry.
“Oh shit,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s normal,” the vet said.
“She just looks so helpless,” Colin said, smearing his nose with the sleeve of his shirt.
“You love your dog,” the vet said, her hand finding her throat and dandling the necklace there. Sheila checked to see whether Colin noticed this gestural flirtation, but he was staring mournfully at Patsy.
He was still upset on the drive home. “Dogs don’t commit suicide,” he said. “You’re a guidance counselor. Didn’t you study stuff like this?”
“I work in a school, not the zoo.”
“Animals are . . . they just want food. They want to live. It’s evolution!” He said this with anguish, as if he had come to the limit of what he could understand. Sheila imagined how flummoxed he must have felt to find himself in a situation of having a mistress with two children who wanted him to take their smiling pictures.
“We give Patsy her food,” she said. “She doesn’t have to think about hunting and gathering. Her survival is assured.”
“She’s got time on her hands. She thinks about what her purpose is in life. She comes up empty.”
“I don’t know, Sheila,” Colin said, doubtfully.
She looked over at him thoughtfully. “I know you don’t,” she said.
She had never given much consideration to her heart until someone had reached inside her and touched it. After the operation, the doctor explained to her that three of her arteries had been eighty-percent blocked; it was astonishing that she wasn’t already dead. She listened woozily as Colin asked questions about her recovery and prognosis. He wrote down all the answers, asking the doctor to repeat certain phrases, the way he did when he was conducting an investigation. The doctor was young, and Sheila could sense that he was growing nervous in the face of Colin’s precision. She wanted to tell the doctor that Colin was an adulterer in order to mitigate Colin’s threat, but she couldn’t make her mouth work.
“Can she still have kids?” Colin said, shyly.
“Let’s see how she does,” the doctor said, and left the room.
Why had he asked that question? Was he seeking some kind of justification? A doctor’s note like the ones the kids forged in school to get out of PE? But she knew Colin was not capable of such cruelty, and that he was asking for her sake, because he knew that a child was something she wanted, even though, together, they had not yet managed it.
Colin was constant during her recovery. Sometimes she expressed dismay, her discomfort and bed-ridden boredom compelling her to pick at the scab of his infidelity. She brought up moral relativism, which she knew was unkind. She remembered when Trudy had taken it upon herself to teach Sheila vocabulary as if three-syllable words were the armor Sheila needed to get by in the world. “Quixotic!” Trudy would scream and Sheila would have three seconds in which to give a definition. Colin withstood Sheila’s petulance with calm, implacable smiles, something she imagined he’d learned from his job. His size came in handy as she needed to be carried up and down the stairs of their house until she was strong enough to do so on her own. He brought her food and washed her hair. They sat in bed together night after night and watched infomercials. He traced his hand down the vertical scar that bisected her torso and, two months after the surgery, he made
love to her carefully. They did not talk about the woman in Seattle. The tension of the unspoken caused Sheila and Colin to become familiar to one another in a new way, as if they were prisoners of war, sharing a cell and a meager bowl of rice, listening for the footfalls that might seal their fates. When she began dating Colin, she announced to him that if he ever cheated on her, she would leave. But it turned out this was not true. Hurt was not such an obvious thing, and happiness was still more obscure. Her marriage had become perilous and strange, and she felt as she had as a younger woman, when the roommates passed through the room where she and her boyfriend made love. Colin’s adultery exposed her desire, turned it into to something both pornographic and banal, private and essential.
For the first two weeks after Patsy’s surgery, the dog could not move. Still, she tried, starting at the hysterical yips of the neighborhood dogs greeting passing trucks or the sound of the mailbox squeaking open and closed, her instinct trumping the pain of her broken body. Patsy could do nothing for herself, and Sheila had to lift her and carry her outside to do her business. The process was awkward and messy, but Sheila didn’t mind. In the afternoons, when she came home from the school, she sat on the floor next to the dog bed and stared into Patsy’s large, wet eyes, wondering what had drawn Patsy toward nothingness.
By the third week, Sheila resumed working full-time. On Monday, she sat in her school office across from Morton Washburn. He was a long, angular boy who wore his hair across one eye like a slash of black felt pen marking a grammatical error. Having shed the previous year’s gothic persona, complete with black fingernails and white-powdered face, he now affected a prep-school style completely out of place in his inner-city high school—deck shoes and square black-framed glasses, collared shirts peeking up above sherbet-colored crewneck sweaters. The burden of his name was so great that he had to work with extra ingenuity in order to turn it from blight into irony. Sheila noted that he insisted on being called Morton rather than Morty, an affectation she thought shrewd. Morton came to speak to her nearly once a week. He was doing well in school and had not gotten into any trouble. He came from an intact home and his parents always showed up for conferences and signed his report cards. He never had much to say at their sessions, but Sheila felt he was working his way up to telling her he was gay. There were times when she wanted to give him a nudge so that they could get on with it, but instead she sat patiently each week while he tried to manufacture problems that needed her attention. This week, he was having a failure of imagination and they stared across her desk at one another in silence.
“My dog tried to kill herself,” she said, finally.
“But why?” he asked. “Was she sad?”
“Define your terms,” she said.
Morton sucked in a breath of air. Sheila saw the spark that students got when they matched what they knew to what was being demanded of them and found themselves equal to it.
“Despondent, rueful, sorrowful.”
“Someone’s been studying for his SATs,” she said.
He shrugged off an embarrassed smile. “Are you sure she didn’t just fall?”
“No. It was intentional. I was there.”
“God,” Morton said. “Poor baby.”
“Do you ever think of hurting yourself, Morton?” she asked. She was supposed to ask such questions when a student expressed anxiety or depression in order to estimate the element of risk. If a student didn’t want to discuss such things with her directly, there was a computerized phone intake they could access. A recorded voice asked: Are you taking any drugs? Press 1 for “yes,” 2 for “no.” Have you considered suicide? Press 1 for “yes,” 2 for “no.”
“No,” Morton said, wearily, as if even that option would not solve things for him. She believed him. It was the ones who proclaimed the impossibility of such an idea whom she worried about.
“Anything else you want to tell me today?” she asked.
“Not really. I feel a lot better, though. I’m glad your dog is okay.”
She started to question his assertion but stopped herself. Morton was hesitantly searching for a single answer to the complicated question of himself. Perhaps it would frighten him to know that it was possible to be okay and not okay at the same time, that a thing—a dog, say, or desire—could only exist alongside the possibility of its absence.
“I like your colors,” she said, waving generally at his shirt and sweater as they both stood.
“I just can’t wear what everybody else wears,” he said, looking down at his chest with anguish.
“It’s hard to be a style icon,” she said.
“Thank you,” he said, relieved.
In February, three months after Sheila’s surgery, winter settled in decisively. The afternoon sun was low, and the lights in the houses on the street shone with a kind of menace, as if to say that warmth was locked away. Sheila and Colin unloaded grocery bags from the car while Patsy gamboled in the hedges by the side of the driveway. Sheila watched as her husband hoisted two bags and settled them into his arms like twins. She thought about the man at the lemonade stand, about the secret
hidden inside his wrinkled bag. She realized that he could not have had interview clothes in the bag because they would have been wrinkled too. She had not thought of that when she was younger. She had not fully understood the danger of his desire. She stared at Colin.
“Oh, my God,” she said.
“What?” Colin said. “Are you ok?”
“You’re going to hurt me. You’re going to leave, aren’t you?”
Colin looked pained. “I love her. I’m sorry.”
His clarity rendered her speechless. How could she have known that the bad thing she would never recover from would be love?
The vet was right. In six months, Patsy returned to her normal self. Bouncing and happy. Her hair had grown back in the places where she’d been shaved for the surgery. Sheila took her for a long walk, along the steady path of the same development they’d gone to that autumn day. Now the two of them benefited from the smoothness of paved walkways, the gentle ups and downs, Patsy with her gimpy leg, Sheila with her heart. It was April now, but there had been a spring snow the night before. The sun splashed on the white so that Sheila had to avert her watering eyes. She walked Patsy to the embankment and watched the stream below, which moved quickly, hastened by the snowmelt. Patsy put her nose to the ground to sniff at the tough, determined growth that poked through the winter-hardened crust of earth. Sheila had not put Patsy on a leash; she was not worried the dog would jump. Patsy had already taken her leap.
Earlier that day during school Sheila had seen Morton in the hallway. He was talking to Vanessa LaConte. Vanessa carried the flesh of her late childhood with her into adolescence just in case, as though she had overpacked, not knowing what she would need. Sheila remembered her ridiculous fantasy about Vanessa discovering the beaker full of acid. All she wanted now was for the girl to emerge from her childhood unscathed, for no one to hurt her, or even try. She was pleased to see her talking to Morton. But when he leaned down to kiss her on the mouth, Sheila had to stop herself from calling out, “No! No!” as if they had stepped into the path of a bullet. She walked past them, careful not to embarrass them by acknowledging that she had seen them or that she knew Morton in any particular way. And did she know him? She had been certain he would not want to kiss girls. But maybe she was wrong. Or maybe she would eventually be right. She turned a corner feeling suddenly happy, her heart full of a radiant possibility. There was so much time between now and eventually. There was so much trouble yet to come.
From ALONE WITH YOU by Marisa Silver. Copyright © 2010 by Marisa Silver. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Read next: "The Million Pound Shop" by Ian Wild
First published in Ecotone
Editor: Ben George
Mission: Ecotone, founded in 2005 at UNC Wilmington, brings together the literary and the scientific, the personal and the biological, the urban and the rural. An ecotone is a place; it’s a transition zone between two adjacent ecological communities, containing the characteristic species of each, and is often a testing ground full of danger and opportunity. One of our primary goals is to bridge the gap between science and culture, to break out of the pen of the purely literary and wander freely among the disciplines. As such, an ecotone is also a metaphor for the kinds of writing and concerns that inhabit the same space in the magazine.
Marisa Silver made her fiction debut in The New Yorker when she was featured in that magazine's first “Debut Fiction” issue. Her collection of short stories, Babe in Paradise was published by W.W. Norton in 2001. That collection was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was aLos Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. In 2005, W.W. Norton published her novel, No Direction Home. Her latest novel, The God of War, was published in 2008 by Simon and Schuster and is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction. Winner of the O. Henry Prize, her fiction has been included in The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, as well as other anthologies. Her new collection of stories, Alone With You, was published in April, 2010.