It was the first day of 1975, and the woman had little comfort left in her heart. She had sworn off all hope of ever bearing a child; the last loss came and went without warning, without fight, without defense. She wandered around the house in her mother’s old nightgown. She cooked and cleaned, and in the clawfoot tub she washed her limbs, treasuring her own creases as if they were an infant’s fat roles.
The cold often congested her. It clogged her sinuses. Clogged her pipes when she forgot to leave the faucet dripping during a freeze. Clogged her gut, too, because all she had that month was brie cheese on eggs, coffee with cream and Kahlúa, scalloped potatoes with scallions and ketchup, homemade lasagna, Cabernet and spirits, and homemade apple pie. What she looked forward to the most was a heavy glass in hand, warm and buzzing liquid coating her throat, and the manic mystery these spirits thrust her into. She blindly stumbled into the darkness, ready to lose control — ready at any moment to lift her clammy hands from the steering wheel.
Spring blew in with warm, sweeping promises. The woman awoke to deferred grief. Her husband slept in another room of the house, miles away, banished by his snoring, though they both knew the snoring had nothing to do with their separate bedrooms. At this point she decided to hang up her nightgown in the closet and slip on dusty sneakers, trading television for morning walks.
Her stamina remained for a time. But after April’s constant showers bore no fruit or greenery, the murky-brown memories, acidic and burning, abruptly came back to her: the stains on the mattress, the kitchen floor, the porch swing. Pooled memories of what could have been, expelled from her powerless body, a body unable to prevent the spillage. With every pass, with every stare from her husband, the bile of it all crept up her throat. Nothing living inside but beating parts, she thought. Nothing to cradle but a bottle of red.
She blindly stumbled into the darkness, ready to lose control — ready at any moment to lift her clammy hands from the steering wheel.
Her husband, who often came home to a half-eaten dinner, would graze her stomach with his hand. An attempt. An invitation, perhaps. But the woman jerked away, as if his touch were a gaping reminder of all she couldn’t do. They no longer made love, only prompt intercourse twice a month at a quarter to eight. Two half-clothed bodies met in her bedroom where they attempted to conceive in different languages until he came. The number of orgasms she had with her husband in recent months had dwindled to zero. But the number without him had become a dangerous and delicious number. One filled with bottles of wine, purpled lips, and blurred vision; her wide eyes at dawn searching strangers’ homes for cold porcelain toilets where she vomited still champagne, unaware of her naked body, a body that learned good sex. It knew climax, knew when to claw a lover’s back, thighs, and face in order to get there.
A glowing August came with no menstruation, and once again the woman thought this would be the time. Oh God, the murky brown could stay put. It could. When she phoned her husband, she wept. Later, the two of them spoke face to face. Then cheek to cheek, hand in hand. And after a few weeks, body to body in the same language, on the same bed. There would be no more cold sides of the mattress, no more cold sides of the house or Saran-wrapped plates. They would be grateful; they would see each other, see themselves. One evening, they slept with the windows open. But in the middle of the night, rain poured in through the screens, causing water to bubble up under the paint of the windowsill, souring the curtains and soaking the books on the shelf.
It was an orange morning when the woman straddled a pile of leaves and felt with her hands the familiar pink and brown liquid pour out of her aching abdomen. Hollowed uterus, hollowed stomach. Hollow. Hollow. Hollow. And there, between fading lilac and budding rosemary, the remains were left to cultivate the earth.
For weeks her husband tried to care for her. Images of him moved around her bed. Maybe he knelt, maybe he begged at her feet and asked what he could possibly do. Maybe he screamed, ripped pictures off walls, tore the house to shreds — she wasn’t sure. She needed sleep. Too tired to drink water, too drunk to eat food. When he returned home one evening after work, he traced a trail of glass all the way to a tremulous upside-down mouth near a tremulous upside-down couch and called for an ambulance. His wife had become undone, he thought. Unmade, like a bed used for unfaithful sex. He watched the shrieking sirens drive away. Before following them in his car, he downed a glass of scotch and sucked in all the breath he could manage through a cigarette.
For weeks her husband tried to care for her. Images of him moved around her bed. Maybe he knelt, maybe he begged at her feet and asked what he could possibly do. Maybe he screamed, ripped pictures off walls, tore the house to shreds — she wasn’t sure.
A month later, once she had been deemed sane, the woman returned home, welcomed by a well-lit living room. She was certain the clean right-side-up house would haunt her into another lonely winter. Her husband moved about, watching her and peaking over the banister and into rooms, as if he were observing a mouse search for crumbs. The woman couldn’t feel her husband pass behind her or touch her arm or hair. For a long time, she couldn’t smell the meals he prepared for her, couldn’t notice when he changed the flowers in the vases. She only felt, all over her body, the pressing pangs of sorrow at full term — the crowning grief as she carried around her body and empty arms.
At last, winter came again. Slowly, the woman taught herself to be still, then how to sleep by listening to the beating of her heart. One morning, she awoke to frosty air streaming in through the cracked window and wrapped herself in the white quilt folded at the edge of the bed. She walked downstairs, gliding her fingertips over the dark maple banister, pausing in the foyer to stare at the wild perennials spilling over a crystal vessel. The coffee in the kitchen, still hot, sat next to an unused mug and fresh cream. At this she smiled before filling her cup and savoring the warmth of the mug pressed against her chest. She stepped out onto the Victorian porch. It was cold, but she didn’t mind. Her bare feet stepped softly onto the thin white veil of snow. Earth, she thought. And there she stayed and sipped her coffee, a faint smile hanging on the edges of her lips.
Jenna Dorian self-published her first novella, You Holy Screaming Symphony, in 2016. Her work has appeared in PERJUS Magazine, Dime Show Review, Make Change, and Hippocampus Magazine. Jenna is a member of The Porch Writers’ Collective and was a writer-in-residence at Rivendell Writers’ Colony. She is currently an MFA candidate at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles where she serves as an editor at Otis Books.