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Twilight with stars over pond

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By Maggie Pahos

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She did me the favor of loving me, and in return, I pretended to save her from the world.

 
We met at the Hook, Line, and Sinker’s weekly meat raffle. This was back before everything stopped feeling safe, back before the country turned mad. I was at the bar with college buddies, and she was there for her grandparents’ memorial celebration. In college, no one in my frat had known how to cook. I got sick one night on someone’s spoiled attempt at sloppy joes, so I taught myself my way around a kitchen from YouTube videos and from my mom. By sophomore year, I could have practically earned a Michelin star for my mashed potatoes and pot roast, my macaroni and cheese. Every July since graduation, my friends and I took a week-long fishing trip to Wisconsin, and HL&S was our home base. We’d had an unlucky day on the lake, and I was eyeing a package of shrink-wrapped pork loin for our dinner. My number was 396.  

Adeline was standing at the bar near me while the numbers were being called. She turned around, in one hand, a basket of mozzarella sticks, and in the other, a basket of cheese curds, a piece of her hair caught in her mouth, a string of white cheese hanging from her lip. I’m pretty sure right then is when I fell in love. She was about to walk past me when I said, “You rob a cow for all those?”

“My grandparents just died,” she said with the brazenness of the freshly bereaved. “If we weren’t stuffing our faces right now, they’d be disappointed.”

“Yikes,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“Six weeks apart. So crazy, right? It isn’t bogus.”

“What’s not?”

“Broken hearts.” Her lips were chapped, and I was staring at them.

“Dibs on the band name,” I said.

“Sorry?”

“The Bogus Broken Hearts,” I said, like a radio announcer, committed now. “Thirty cities in three months. Get your tickets today!”

She stared at me, and I’d seen that look before, so I knew she was done with me. I started searching behind her to see where my friends had gone, time to cut bait. But then she raised an eyebrow. She made her voice low. She said, “Don’t miss their whirlwind world tour. Surprise openers at every show!” I laughed like the lucky do. She scrunched her nose. Eighteen months later, we were married.

“Perseus,” Addie said one night, looking through the eyepiece, “was a dick.”

I moved into Addie’s apartment in Chicago’s West Loop. We adopted a dog and named him Fido because we thought we were funny. I was a copywriter at a tech company where they gave me too little work for too much money, a curse exclusively cast upon men who look like me. Addie worked in the education department at the Adler Planetarium, but the summer after our wedding, she landed a job as an astronomy professor at a small private college in Iowa. I could work from anywhere, so we traded our 16th-floor apartment for a two-bedroom 1920s farmhouse. Brunch-filled Sundays and traffic jams for cow pies and miles of corn.

We arrived just in time for the school year in the fall of 2016, which meant we also arrived two months before the election. It was a hot early autumn, and the Make America Great Again signs stuck out of dry, brown lawns like solitary crops in sad rows. We FaceTimed our friends in Chicago, friends we’d phone-banked with, who worked at nonprofits and Montessori schools, and we could hear the pity in their voices like tainted water.

“It’s not so bad,” we’d say. “Addie’s students are fairly progressive.” The truth was we didn’t see the signs as a threat so much as objects of pity ourselves. The polls were starting to look good for us. And, really. I mean, come on.

We spent our first weeks in Iowa settling into our newfound life, Addie adjusting to her classroom, both of us adjusting to the quiet. We sat on the front porch and drank iced tea, and at night, sometimes we’d go to Addie’s office near the pond on campus and make out on the desk, then head to the observatory to look through the big telescope.

“Perseus,” Addie said one night, looking through the eyepiece, “was a dick.” She’d told me about Perseus plenty of times, but I always let her tell me again. “Cassiopeia appears in the sky, all strong, feeling herself, knowing she’s so fine, pissing off gods because she calls herself beautiful. And then Perseus comes along, not as bright as her, mind you, of course not, dragging a woman’s head.”

“Not a gentleman.”

“He follows in Cassiopeia’s wake all night long, so you tell me who’s in charge.”

We’d missed the Perseids that year, we were still in the city, but Addie and I tilted our heads back for shooting stars in the dark sky we were still getting accustomed to. There was no more dreamsicle-colored glow from city lights, no more strobes, no traffic helicopters. We watched the stars fly by like we were at a tennis match. We made wishes on the brightest ones.

“Please let her win,” I heard Addie say under her breath, the night before Election Day, her eyes closed so tight, I wondered if it hurt. “Please,” I said, too.

I sat there so impressed at the magnitude and speed with which she envisioned the most horrific of outcomes that sometimes I forgot to speak.

The next morning, Addie and I went to Hamm’s Egg Shack for breakfast.

“Hear that glass shattering?” I said, holding her hand across the table, and she put her other hand to her ear as if listening. We knew most of the other patrons around us had voted for him, but we were going to be the victorious ones. We cheersed our coffee mugs under the table so no one could see, not wanting to rub it in their faces. We ate our bagel sandwiches like we’d already won. I could feel the world starting to shift.

After breakfast, Addie went to class, and I went home to do my “work.” I had planned a big dinner for that night, a full rack of ribs—We roasted the pig!—and a vanilla almond cake with “Who run the world?” scrawled across its face in bright blue icing. I’d been perfecting my recipes on the long, hot days Addie was at work. Whenever I made curry, Fido strolled into the kitchen and thwacked his butt against the stove over and over again like a teenager grinding awkwardly at prom. I had no business making curry. I was raised on meatloaf and corn, and my tolerance for spice could have fit inside a single kernel. But Addie loved it, and I loved watching her when she ate something she loved. Her lips grew a life of their own, making shapes I’d never seen before. She shook her hands by the side of her face, like the hokey pokey, during a particularly hot bite. I wanted to spend all night making her dance.

Addie came home from school on Election Day, the house smelling like barbecue and sugar, and we stationed ourselves in front of the TV, napkins tucked into our collars while we sank our teeth into ribs. The screen filled with blue and red. We barely talked for two hours.

By the time 10 o’clock rolled around, our stomachs were hollow, eyes bloodshot from staring. They were calling states like a sick joke, and Addie began to shake.

“It’s over,” she said, tears all the way to her lip. I put my hand on her knee, but she stood up and walked straight out the front door, the napkin still in her shirt.

I waited a few minutes for her to come back, and when she didn’t, I thought about going to look for her but decided to give her space. I threw away the cake, pathetic and naive now, and considered making chocolate chip cookies so she had something sweet and innocuous to come home to. Instead, I turned off the TV and started the next day’s crossword puzzle, anything to stop watching the news, a continual bludgeon to the head.

16-Across: Kid oneself. I put down my phone.

Fido looked at me, worried, and I wondered where Addie might have gone, what her brain was doing to her. She was imaginative beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. She could come up with the worst-case scenario in no time flat. I sat there so impressed at the magnitude and speed with which she envisioned the most horrific of outcomes that sometimes I forgot to speak.

“Do you think that mold is killing us?” she’d said in bed that past Saturday morning, lazy and post-sex, staring at a pancake-sized stain on the ceiling.

“No way,” I told her. “Too small. It’d need to be at least three times that big.” But what did I know?

I’d find myself Googling “Can you get electrocuted in a tent?” or “If there’s just a little bit of blood could it still be Crohn’s Disease?” I’d angle my phone away from her so she couldn’t see how little I knew, how unreliable I really was. My job was to act like I had all the answers, to shield her from whatever was scaring her. She did me the favor of loving me, and in return, I pretended to save her from the world.

In one of her finest hours, Fido got out of our new back fence, and I rode my bike around the neighborhood looking for him. He was sitting on the neighbor’s porch two doors down, licking his balls, and the whole ordeal from start to finish had lasted just under five minutes. When I walked through the door with Fido around my shoulders, singing “We Are the Champions,” Addie put her phone on the table to lay with him on the floor. On her screen, I saw she’d Googled, “Pet cemeteries near me.”

“Gave up that fast, huh?” I said.

She said, “Tell me why it’s bad to be prepared.”

But she hadn’t predicted this one, or had at least hoped so hard she had tricked herself out of believing it. Or maybe she just never said the words out loud to me. The polls, we kept saying. Look at the polls!

I picked up my phone again. 18-Down: End.

When Addie finally walked back through the door 40 minutes later, she looked exactly as she had before, except her cheekbones were somehow sharper. The skin around her fingernails was rashy. Also, she was soaking wet, but it wasn’t raining. We stared at each other for a whole minute.

“Maybe it won’t be as bad as we think,” I finally said, though even as the words were coming out of my mouth, I wanted to punch my own face.

“Think about how bad you think it’s going to be,” she said, the water from her hair creating a puddle around her feet. “And then multiply that by 100,000. You can’t even imagine how bad. He is going to blow your fucking mind.”

I didn’t ask why she was wet. It seemed like the least important thing. The warmth in our upstairs bedroom with the central heating that night made it feel as though we were tucked inside a monster’s armpit, but she insisted we sleep with the fan off for the first time since we’d moved in, like she wanted to punish herself. Didn’t we all? We had let it happen. Though, of course, we wouldn’t be the ones paying the most, which meant our self-flagellation needed to be that much more severe.

“If I need you to come in and save me, I’ll let you know.” Her voice had a cactus quality to it, sharp but curved.

The next morning, Addie woke up stiff and disoriented. She walked like a seasick sailor to the kitchen where she accidentally stirred salt into her coffee instead of sugar. She ate a bite of dry toast then looked like she was going to throw it up.

“Here,” I said, ready to take her coffee and switch it out with a new unsalted one. But she gripped the mug and wouldn’t let me have it.

“If I need you to come in and save me, I’ll let you know.” Her voice had a cactus quality to it, sharp but curved.

“Jeez, Ad,” I said, but I released the mug and she took another sip, watching me the whole time. There was a slight shake in her hand. There was something I’d never seen before in her eyes, like whatever lives inside rattlesnake tails.

The next weeks were a gray streak. When I put our trash on the curb or went for the mail at the end of the drive, I’d see a neighbor or two. I waved and they waved back, and I couldn’t tell if what I saw was a smirk or nothing at all. I watched from my window as they watered plants. I pushed by them in the produce section, weighed my potatoes next to theirs.

Addie was spending more time on campus, helping to prepare her students for the end of the term. I cooked, I drank beer, I read every possible news article—Amendment 25, foreign interference, fascism—and waited for her to come home. Each time she did, I could see she was sinking further.

“Do you know right around half of the white women who voted, voted for him?” she said one night over bourbon hot chocolates, a month-and-a-half after the election. She was wearing the Pussyhat her friend had sent her. There was whipped cream on her chin. “I didn’t know we could hate ourselves that much.”

I watched her eyes grow hollow, watched her chew the ends of her hair like she did when she was anxious. “But you all need to get out of our fucking way…” she said, cheeks ablaze.

She was doing this now, saying, “you all,” saying “the men” and meaning every single one. We hadn’t had sex since before the election, not that I was exactly counting. As distraught as I found myself about the damage he had already done, about all the destruction that was to come, I knew where I sat, so far from the direct line of fire. All things considered, Addie did, too. But I was trying to learn when to talk and when to be quiet.

“How can we stand by and watch him take down everything we care about?” Addie said, wiping chocolate from her lip. “So many people aren’t going to make it through this.”

As I looked at her, scared and violated and angry, seething with what to do next, I knew there was no Googling I could do, no amount of euphemisms I could string together to make it better for her. For anyone.

It went on like this for another week, her midnight wanderings, our bed strewn with twigs and crushed leaves, and I had to wash the sheets almost daily to get rid of the rot smell.

That night is when the strangeness began. I woke up some time after midnight. At first, I’d thought I was dreaming, my hand pushing down on a soggy mushroom in some faraway land, my universe populated by make believe. But then I realized my eyes were open, the ceiling fan stationary above me, Fido at our bed’s foot. Next to me, Addie lay there, eyes closed. She was in a sweater and pants, not the boxer shorts she’d gone to sleep in, and she was entirely wet like she’d been on election night, her side of the bed a light puddle, the sheets darkening, her hair in a tangled damp mess on her pillow.

“Addie,” I said, shaking her shoulder. “What the hell?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it?” she said as she rolled away from me so her back faced me, a blank, wet log. I put my face near hers, and she smelled like dirt. In a minute, she was snoring.

The next morning, when I woke up, she had already left the house. I waited all day for her, and it was useless trying to text or call because she turned her phone off when she taught. The sky was steely, as we had started our descent into winter, the days shortening, closing in. Addie strolled in at 6, well after dark, right when I was popping a chicken pot pie in the oven. She kissed Fido on the head. She kissed my cheek. She went upstairs without a word. I followed her into our bedroom.

“Where were you last night?” I said, watching as she pulled a sweater over her head. “Why were you wet?” She looked at me like I should have already known.

“Can you just let me have this?” she said. She sounded, more than anything, desperate, and I wanted to pull her back to me, to throw my hands up and shield her from whatever was soaking her at night, whatever was pulling her out of our bed. But I nodded, and she walked past me, back down the stairs. I heard her open a bottle of wine. The air smelled like celery.

It went on like this for another week, her midnight wanderings, our bed strewn with twigs and crushed leaves, and I had to wash the sheets almost daily to get rid of the rot smell. The bags under her eyes were growing darker, she was only getting about four hours of sleep a night, but her will somehow seemed stronger. She was walking taller than she had a week earlier, swifter and with more purpose. She almost fell asleep at the dinner table on the seventh night, her spoon toppling to the floor as her head fell forward. I put my hand on her forehead right before it would have fallen into the tomato soup. What was I watching happen to her?

“Let’s get you home,” I said, standing above her like an awkward giant, Perseus stomping above us.

That night, when I heard her wake, I got out of bed, too.

“Can I come with you?” I said. She looked at me in the moonlight, her face so still, it was like she was still sleeping.

“Fine,” she said, picking up a bag I’d never seen her use before, and I followed her outside. I slid into the passenger’s seat and when she turned on the engine, opera music was playing, something in Italian, the foreign sounds filling the car, word after word I didn’t understand, an entire language I’d never know. We slunk down the quiet streets of our town, headlights grazing dead stalks, grazing the signs that not all of our neighbors had removed, despite their victory. We drove through town and, ten minutes later, pulled into the parking lot near her office.

Addie turned off the car and got out. I walked behind her, expecting us to go to her office, but instead, we headed toward the pond. She stood at its edge, the bag at her feet, and we stared at the inky water together. The moon stood at half mast, the light from the parking lot flooding through the trees just enough I could make out her profile and the pond’s surface. It was 20 degrees out. Addie’s chin was quivering. I wondered what we were doing.

“Addie?” I stepped toward her, ready to wrap my jacket around her shoulders, to pull her to me, but then she took a step forward and another, and before I could stop her, she had jumped into the pond, the water falling in droplets around my feet with her splash.

I shouted her name, but the water was turning smooth again, and I couldn’t see her anymore. She was fully under, and I waited ten seconds, but, still, she didn’t come up. This is what she was doing all those nights? Swimming in a frigid, dirty pond? I waited ten seconds more, then started to take off my shoes. I was about to dive in when her head popped up. Her dark hair clung to her cheeks, she gasped for air.

“Come here,” I said, and she started swimming to shore. She pushed up onto the grass, and I could feel the cold coming off her.

“What was that?” I said, rubbing her arms. There was mud lodged underneath her fingernails, part of a leaf slicked against her nose. Her lips were trembling, and her eyelashes were stuck together.

“I have to touch the bottom,” she said, her lips blue. “If I touch the bottom, it might be okay.”

“Aren’t you so cold?” I said.

“Freezing,” she said. “But breathing.”

She looked at me for a second, like she didn’t quite see me, and I was ready to walk back with her to the car, to thaw her out, tuck into bed with her. But she picked up the bag at the pond’s edge and walked in the opposite direction of the parking lot, to a patch of grass. She unzipped the bag and pulled out two blankets. One, she used to dry off her hair and wrap around her body. The other, she spread out on the grass, and then she lay down.

“Let’s get you home,” I said, standing above her like an awkward giant, Perseus stomping above us. “You’re going to get sick.”

“I wait until I see ten stars,” Addie said, staring at the sky. “Or until the girls are gone.”

“Girls?” I said. I thought she might be losing her mind, that I had lost track of things more than I realized.

But then, from the parking lot, I heard a car door slam and then another. From behind the building, I saw shadows moving toward us, flashlights in hand. I looked at Addie, but her eyes stayed straight up. In the dim light, I could make out five young women walking to the edge of the pond.

 “Hi, Professor Goldberg,” one of them shouted.

“Hey team,” Addie said, raised her hand in a wave.

Three of them were in wetsuits, and two, like Addie, were in long pants and sweaters. I could see a couple of them registering me, a fly on a birthday cake. The women put their flashlights down, then one by one they jumped into the pond, disappeared under the water for 30 seconds, then 40. They bobbed back up one after the other. I could hear their sharp, deep breaths against the nothing quiet around us, and one by one, they went under again. I waited for them to step back onto land, but they kept going, filling their lungs then going under once more.   

“How long do they do that for?” I asked, feeling more with each second that I was trespassing, that I was dumb to have asked to come at all. I was still standing above Addie, unsure what to do with my hands or my face, so outside of this ritual, I didn’t even own a passport.

“As long they need,” Addie said from the ground. “Until they feel strong enough for tomorrow.”

Soon, one of the women climbed out of the water, started wringing her hair. A few more women had pulled into the parking lot, and now they were joining the others at the pond.

I didn’t want to leave her on the freezing ground, wet. But she wasn’t going to move, I could see.

“You can go home,” Addie said, calm as I’d ever heard her. “We can take it from here.”

I looked at the parking lot.

“They’ve got me,” she said, gesturing with her head toward the pond. 

I didn’t want to leave her on the freezing ground, wet. But she wasn’t going to move, I could see. The women bobbed in the distance, persisting.

“You’re a good one,” she said, reaching out to squeeze my leg. I looked down at her, those sharp cheekbones.

“It’s still just me,” I said. She was as mysterious to me that night as she would ever be, and as fierce, her hair hanging in icicles, her eyes glossy and intense. She looked back at the sky, and I turned from her and walked myself to the car, slipping past the pond as quickly as possible, as though I’d just stolen something. When I turned the key, the Italian opera was still playing on the radio, and I changed the channel, searching for something I could make sense of.

“It’s going to be another cold one, coming up,” a woman’s voice said into the dark. I pulled out of the parking lot, the sky flashing above me. I cranked up the heat. “Get ready for some record lows.”

 

 

Maggie PahosMaggie Pahos is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. She earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from Chatham University, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Flyway, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hippocampus Magazine, Hobart, and elsewhere. In the summers, she leads trips for National Geographic Student Expeditions and Putney Student Travel. You can read more of her writing at www.maggiepahos.com.

Header photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski, courtesy Pixabay.

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