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Friday, December 19, 2014

A Bipolar Christmas

by Martin Achatz

My daughter was born at the end of an early December snowstorm. I remember the wind that night while my wife was in labor, the kind of wind that shakes parked cars. It tore up the darkness, as if it was mad at the sun for disappearing to the other side of the planet. At some point during that long, midnight vigil, I joked to my wife, Beth, “Keep it down. I can’t hear the wind.”
She didn’t laugh.
At 7:29 the following morning, our daughter was born, screaming and healthy.
The storm had blown itself out like a birthday candle by the time Beth gave the final push that brought our baby into the world. Outside, everything was blinding white and calm, a scene from Currier & Ives. Inside, I stood by my wife’s bed and stared at her and my newborn daughter, felt myself opening up, unfolding like some rare orchid in the moment. So serene. So perfect.
I’d like to end with that Madonna and child moment, tell you that later in the morning, three kings showed up and showered us with presents and food and free camel rides. But that isn’t quite what happened.
Before she became pregnant, my wife had been battling crippling bouts of depression. She’d been to counselors and therapists, talked about her mother’s death, started taking Prozac. Nothing worked. The depressions kept getting deeper and longer, as if she were on some endless donkey ride through the Grand Canyon at night during a full lunar eclipse. These lows were always followed by periods of respite, chrysalis times when my wife broke free, became all wing and sun and light.
Then Beth got pregnant. For those nine months, the darkness simply vanished. At first, we kept watch, waiting for the nose of an iceberg to appear on the horizon. After a few months of clear seas, however, we relaxed, began planning our future with something like hope. My wife seemed to be waking up after a long fallow season. Our life became a series of doctor’s visits and firsts. First hearing of our daughter’s heartbeat. First ultrasound. First time our daughter moved.
When we painted the nursery walls that autumn, my wife’s depressions were like shadows in the corners of a well-lit room. I was in graduate school, writing poems about mosquitoes and moons. Beth only had one bout of morning sickness her entire pregnancy. Approaching her due date and the upcoming holidays, we never heard the chains of the Ghost of Mental Illness Yet to Come rattling at our front door.
It took only a couple days after our daughter was born for the honeymoon to end. Beth woke up one morning and said to me, “I have a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach.” These nervous feelings were omens that something dark was about to descend, and I could see it in my wife’s eyes. She had the look of a rabbit being chased by a screech owl, ready to bolt down the nearest burrow.
Her ob-gyn seemed concerned but not panicked. She gave Beth estrogen patches and told her it was the post-partum blues. We liked this doctor a lot, and both of us clung to the belief that these little round stickers of hormone would steer the UPS truck to our house to deliver a glowing package of joy to our front porch.
As the winter solstice approached, however, I would come home from work night after night to find Beth still in bed, our daughter on the pillows beside her. The bedroom was a cave filled with the smell of sour breast milk. I’d climb into bed with them and hold Beth while she wept. As a writer, I don’t often use the word “wept.” It’s too melodramatic a verb, summoning up Heathcliff and Jane Eyre on the moors. But there’s no other word for how my wife clung to my shirt and sobbed, her body convulsed with a grief so profound it made her seem unstitched, as if her bones and muscles and skin couldn’t contain it. Sadness seeped out of her pores like thick, black sap.
Pain is a part of most Christmas narratives. Mary is a pregnant teen, shunned and rejected. As a boy, Scrooge is abandoned by his father. George Bailey is suicidal. Rudolph is bullied. And then there’s Nestor, a little donkey with ears as long as elephant trunks. In this Rankin/Bass holiday special, Nestor is teased for his anatomical anomaly and eventually gets kicked out of the barn during a blizzard on the winter solstice, a night, according to legend, when animals are given the gift of speech. Nestor’s mother follows him and ends up lying on top of him to keep him warm. She saves Nestor but loses her life in the process.
Despair accumulates like heavy snow in all these stories. Yet, there are also Garcia Marquez moments of magic. Ghosts. Wingless angels. Blazing comets. The long December nights always end with warm hay and church bells and sunrises.    
The druids and Celts understood this dual nature of the winter solstice time, this battle between death and life, darkness and light. I think early Christians understood it, as well. That’s why they chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ around December 21. They saw it as a time when human beings reached through the black and cold of winter toward the warmth and rebirth of spring, the very planet tilting from sorrow to hope.
On Christmas Eve, Beth was having a good spell. For a few days, she’d been able to get out of bed, play with our daughter, and wrap presents. During the day on December 24, we made sugar cookies and fudge, watched one of the multiple broadcasts of It’s A Wonderful Life on TV.
Outside, the clouds were the color of a dirty gum eraser, smudged with the promise of snow. The lilac bushes along our property line were capped with white. Their branches rattled in the wind like startled deer hoofs on ice or stone. A storm was coming. The weatherman was forecasting several inches by Christmas morning.
At church that night, Beth and I sat with family. Our daughter slept in the crook of my arm the entire service, her velvet dress the color of evergreen. As we lit candles and sang “Silent Night,” my wife slipped her fingers into my open palm and looked at me, a thin smile on her face. She wasn’t doing well, I could tell. It wasn’t anything physical in her appearance. It was the pressure of her body against mine as we stood, as if she wanted to climb inside my skin, disappear into me.
We drove home in silence, her hand holding mine so tight my fingers ached. I thought of the new ornament hanging in the branches of the tree in our living room. It was an angel sleeping on a cloud, and on the cloud were the words “Baby’s First Christmas.” It should have been that simple, that peaceful.
As we walked to the front steps of our house, Beth leaned into me. The moon pressed through the clouds above, shedding a dim silver on the snow banks along the sidewalk, like a failing flashlight. Familiar shapes, shovels and garbage cans and bushes, became looming shadows. My arms ached, as if they were holding up not just my wife and baby, but the heavens, as well. All of the talk of light and hope and joy from the church seemed as distant as Orion or Antares.
Then I saw something move in the night. A small, hunched shape on the apex of a snow pile. I stopped and stared at it. For a few moments, it remained frozen, and I started to believe it was simply a chunk of ice, that my mind was playing tricks on me. But it eventually stretched upward, like a crocus blooming in time-lapse, until it stood half in darkness, half in moonlight.
It was a rabbit, brown and tall. Its ears twitched back and forth, testing the night for danger. I could see the Christmas lights from our front porch reflected in the black marbles of its eyes. Its body was taut, like the band of a slingshot. It stayed balanced on its hind feet, regarding me. I suddenly thought of the legend of the talking animals, of Nestor crying for his mother in the night. The rabbit looked as if it was going to speak, to impart some ancient lepus wisdom of how to avoid pain and sorrow.
I waited on that Christmas Eve, that night of turning from darkness to light, for some kind of miracle to happen. I wanted to believe that a rabbit could tell me how to help my wife, that God could become human, that happiness could overcome the black of winter.
My daughter cried out in my arms, and the rabbit bolted. I watched it scramble out of the moonlight into the pitch of the lilac bushes. Then, silence and snow and dark. We began moving toward our front door. For some reason, the distance seemed unusually hard, as if we were struggling through water or against a strong wind. It would be half a year before Beth was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Those six months were filled with more deep depressions, followed by flights of sleepless energy. Some days, Beth would carve hieroglyphs into her arms with razors or knives. Other days, she would book airfare to Florida and Walt Disney World. I kept waiting for the long night to end. For a ghost bear to materialize and groan a healing incantation. Or a flock of angel starlings to gather in our maple tree and sing a lullaby. Something soft that would quiet my wife’s unquiet mind.
That Christmas Eve, as we walked to our home, I thought of the magi, struggling through desert and mountain. I thought of the sand in their teeth and hair. Their tired camels and mules. Their muscles and bones aching for water and rest. Their long journey, following a star, through the darkness toward the promise of light.

Martin Achatz’s work has appeared in Kennesaw Review, The Paterson Literary Review, The MacGuffin, and Dunes Review, among others. His collection of poems, The Mysteries of the Rosary, was published by Mayapple Press, and his contribution to the anthology The Way North was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He teaches at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan, where he is the Poetry Editor of Passages North.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Woman Who Is Not My Mother

by Marsha Roberts

I can hear her walking toward the front door, her sensible shoes shuffling closer and closer. But the door doesn’t open yet. She is standing there, just on the other side. She’s making the sign of the cross and asking the Blessed Virgin for courage. I know this because I have seen it many times from the other side.

“Who is it?” she says, her voice the size of a doll’s.

Before I can answer, she says it again, this time pleading. “Who is it?” She's imagining the worst … no, not imagining—remembering. It is wartime and they've come to take her and her family away. The words tremble through the door again. “Please, who is it?”

I try to sound as cheery as I can. “Your daughter!”

“Who?” Mercifully, confusion spills over the terror, blunting it.  

“Your daughter… remember me?” One day, maybe soon, she won’t.

The door finally opens just a slice and she blinks in surprise. “Oh, I didn’t know you were coming.”

The sight of her takes me aback, too. It always does. Even if I’ve just seen her the day before, the first glimpse is always a shock. The woman at the door isn’t my mother. My mother would be appalled at the sight of this woman. “Why doesn’t she comb her hair, or put on some lipstick, or wear a clean blouse, for god’s sake?” my mother would say.

“Why don’t you comb your hair, or put on some lipstick, or wear a clean blouse?” Some days I actually say it before I can get ahold of myself. On those days, she fires right back. The anger that used to be folded neatly under her lets loose with full force. “What does it matter? I am old. Nobody sees me.”

“We’re going out now, Mom. People will see you.”

“If I embarrass you, then I’ll just stay home.”

We go out. She’s wearing the same thing she’s worn for the last three days. A kelly-green t-shirt, topped with a turquoise cardigan—colors clearly unhappy with each other. At the grocery store, I get the usual looks from other middle-aged women. How can you let her go out like this? Why don’t you take care of her like she took care of you?

And then it gets worse. We get to the checkout counter and she takes three candy bars from the stand and slips them onto the belt. I scoop them up and put them back. She grabs them again. I put them back. Her eyes well up and she starts crying—really crying. She says for all to hear that I won’t let her have any candy and that I’m mean and why can’t she have candy because after all, she doesn’t have anything else—candy is her only happiness and I won’t let her have it. By now our audience has turned into a jury. And they're disgusted with me. 

“Diabetes,” I want to explain.

On the way home, I tell her about the senior center dance tomorrow. Would she like to go? I look over and do a double take. It’s my mother. Her eyes are bright blue and her old smile is right there where it always was.

“Oh, yes,” she says, she would love to go. And then, with a giggle, “Maybe I’ll find a boyfriend!” Her cheeks are flushed like she's already whirling around the floor.

She isn’t my mother, but sometimes she reminds me so much of her.

Marsha Roberts lives in Mill Valley, California. Her short stories and humorous pieces have appeared in Gravel, Loud Zoo, Hospital Drive, The Marin Independent Journal, America's Funniest Humor Showcase and soon in Thrice Fiction. Some of her comedy skits have been performed by a San Francisco troupe. She just finished her first novel, The Agent, about an elegant con game. She has visualized Paramount buying the film rights to her stories and novel, so it will happen any day now.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Down the Aisle with Henry James

by Renée Tursi

In his 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James put his heroine Isabel Archer’s marriage at the story’s midpoint. Before then, nuptials had always dwelt at a tale's end. Following Isabel’s ill-considered decision to wed the pernicious Gilbert Osmond, James kept the cameras rolling, giving his readers unnerving access to a very unhappy ever-after.
Having recently entered the marriage plot for the first time in my early fifties, I am thrown off by the return of the fairytale arc in my life. My ever-after, a copiously joyful one so far, has fallen a considerable distance from Isabel’s youthful start of the tale, and presumably well past the middle. Crunching the numbers, I see I could conceivably escape any marital strife just by where my husband and I fall in the actuarial tables. “Before the charm wears off, we’ll be dead” was how the last boyfriend had spun our dating circumstance. He missed the mark for that romance. But he may be spot on about my marriage.
            Yet, while it turned out not to be too late for me to be married, I wonder if it might be too late for me to feel married.
            Mrs. Osmond strikes me as someone who, to James’s astute and life-long unmarried observer’s mind, would have a particular quality that differed from a woman who wed for the first time later in life. It goes deeper than her regret at having married the wrong man—and beyond the fact that, as James notes, “It may seem to the reader that Mrs. Osmond had grown of a sudden strangely cynical.”
            I cannot name the quality, nor would I presume to try. And that’s my dilemma.
Of course I know that marriage in this country today, at least on paper, allows for both partners to remain fully realized individuals. When I talk about feeling married, what I’m referring to is what otherwise strongly autonomous women, ones who had wed at an “expected” age, will often say to me. That long after becoming single again, they still carry a married orientation. They confess to entering rooms as an “I” with ever-so-slight a hesitation, an inner pause registering only on their own finely tuned gauge.
Being unmarried turned out to be nowhere near the “dreadful existence” my 16-year-old self, despite its nonconformist spirit, had imagined such a life. Freedom has been mine in every sense: I made my way through graduate school to an academic career. I went from my own apartment to buying my own house. I had long-term relationships, albeit always fraught ones. I never cooked. And the only diapers I changed were those of my sisters’ children. When one of my nieces was asked once what her aunt does for a living, she replied: “She gives me books.”
But I wasn’t content. I wanted a forever partnership.
That said, the dating advice to “get out there” doing the things you love so as to meet like-minded people landed on my doorstep with a thud. When what one loves most is to curl up at home with Henry James, potential mates tend to remain fictional. 
Plot lines, however, do not. Those tragic miscommunications, tortured ruminations, excruciating choices, and unrelenting disappointments James visits upon his characters were the very storylines I seemed fated to pursue. His heroines and I took on narcissists like lint. 
            After too many decades and very little effort from me, my future husband, in a stroke of impossible irony, just showed up at my door and rang the bell. 
            The day before, I had put down my book and gone for coffee at my neighbor’s, whom he was visiting. He was magnificent. His three children, too. Within a year, he and I wed, surrounded by the people we love and a Vermont downpour.
            When friends ask me “did the marriage take?”, the answer is easy. Happy sped by in a blur. Now I’m in some sort of incandescent bliss. My husband is loving, kind, brilliant, funny, patient, generous, charming, tall, and handsome. Really. When someone talks to him in front of me, I’m so relieved; it’s proof I’ve not made him up.
Astonished to have found each other “at this point in our lives,” we feel so temperamentally enmeshed that he and I are as much a “we” as I imagine two beings can be. As my stepson watches his father and me eat breakfast with our oatmeal bowls touching, he just shakes his head.
But the first time I was asked whether I was planning to change my name to my husband’s, I admitted the thought hadn’t occurred to me. Honestly, at my age, the question felt even a bit embarrassing. Like my trying to pull off a navel piercing. And now when I’m asked what being married feels like, the truth is, beyond my absolute happiness, I don’t know. I think I may have a permanently unmarried state of mind.
            So here’s what I tell people: I feel like a single person who’s married.
            Everything and nothing prepared me for this impasse. During the feminist-turbulent years of my childhood, the fact that my mother had forfeited a dance career because my father deemed it unfitting for a university faculty wife to be seen in a leotard made no small impression on me.
            “Never count solely on a man” she told my sisters and me within earshot of the spouse upon whom she could count for everything, except recognition as a sound decision-maker.
            She loved my father and she loved us. But it was clear that her life had left her in service. I came away with few convincing arguments for becoming a wife and having children myself. Virginia Woolf said what we all know: “we think back through our mothers if we are women.”
            My mother spent the last dozen years of her life a widow. As much as she changed remarkably during that period—traveling, building a house, and tramping the Vermont woods with chainsaw in hand—she would never have been mistaken for a life-long unmarried woman. Mistaken for me. Something about the tilt of her head, as though still listening to my father’s voice.
            She would also never come to like James. A perceptive reader, she found the way he loitered about in a discontented mind unsettling.
            In high school, no one had asked me to the prom; the day after, however, a boy came up to me to say that he had thought about asking me. This utterance, astounding for its Jamesian conflux of misdirection, bewildered me as nothing had before.
I could understand his deciding not to ask me. It was his telling me that was impenetrable.
            I turned to novels. There I was sure that such unfathomable discourse would be explained. I started to really read and I started to date. But the two experiences seemed to conspire to make the possibility of fruitful pairing mere fantasy.
            Had I been able to identify more with another author’s heroines, Jane Austen’s, say, maybe my decisions would have sent me down the marriage path, for better or worse, at a younger age. What I ended up taking to, instead, was James’s sensibility. There is such a profound inwardness to it all. An aching aloneness and yearning that surges through his careful studies of human behavior. I ate it up.
            If only he had chosen, just for me, to keep going his short story “The Jolly Corner.” It ends with the promise of a mature kindling of an earlier friendship. Having waited, on reserve as it were, for Spencer Brydon’s return to New York after thirty-three years abroad, Alice Staverton had been getting on with her life. She “sallied forth and did battle.” In appraising her after all these years, Brydon thinks her appearance “defied you to say if she were a fair young woman who looked older through trouble, or a fine smooth older one who looked young through successful indifference.”
            I would like to read about the married Staverton a decade down the road. Just to know whether or not James would leave her unmarried habits of mind intact.
            Perhaps only someone as never-married as James, someone to whom women often confided quite deeply, could suggest so enigmatically the transformation that the young Isabel Archer undergoes in becoming Mrs. Osmond. When a few years into the marriage James has her become absorbed into thought about her husband’s irregular conduct, he seems to imply that she is feeling emotionally alone. But not exactly solitary.
            Since I’ve been married, my interiority has withstood any breach upon my feeling solitary. This despite the absence of lonesomeness. Despite a husband who, with such sweetness, has somehow come to read my mind and to protect my every vulnerability. Nevertheless, on forms, I still search for a hybrid term somewhere between “single” and “married.”
            My life has been a rich yield from feminists before me. They gave me choice, income, and innumerable rooms of my own. Unlike Mrs. Osmond, who “sometimes felt a sort of passion of tenderness for memories which had no other merit than that they belonged to her unmarried life,” I suffer no need for nostalgia. As my husband works at his desk near mine, his presence offers neither rescue nor suffocation. He is there simply as a pure good, added to my singleness.
            James’s world denied the author the comfortable possibility of a satisfying union for himself. Maybe he is suspect, then, for presuming to write the inner life of women. But his prescribed singleness may explain why his outlook has given me insightful companionship equal to that of any female author.
            At key moments in her life, Isabel Archer has just been reading. She lays down the book and stares ahead while her intricate Jamesian contemplations take shape. It’s terrible how, after all that, she so misreads Gilbert Osmond before marrying him. 
I had the benefit of reading much longer than she did before marriage. As it turns out, a deferred ever-after has its advantages. Even if it means my state-of-mind never catches up. 

Renée Tursi is an associate professor of English at Quinnipiac University, where she teaches (mostly) American literature. Her academic work has appeared in the aesthetics journal Style, the Henry James Review, and Studies in the Novel. Her book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and the Times Literary Supplement. With her submission to bioStories, she takes her first steps with a new genre.