It didn’t matter that she shied away every time she turned down this street. Teetering on her heels near the faded stop sign, long out of sidewalk but still full of stride she hovered there, knowing she would take the same steps she always did, still entertaining the idea of having options. She could retrace her steps, pivot on the balls of her feet as if this was all apart of her plan; to walk 20 minutes in one direction just to turn around and hike it right back again. She could do that, she thought, cruise past the old woman in the yellow house who spent her evenings working cross stitch on the front porch. Act as if she hadn’t just waved a sweaty palm in her direction, pretend it was someone else the woman had seen, a different set of nikes crunching the pavement, different ponytail bouncing up and down on a different head that belonged to an entirely different girl. A girl apart from the one who stood here, bouncing up and down on her burning calves like a diver treading water. No, that’s not right. A diver that is treading water is a diver that has already taken the plunge, plunked head first into the deep end and come up for air.
She hadn’t even dipped her toes in.
The road crept up to meet her soles, and just like that, she went one foot in front of the other, the way she always did down this road. It propelled her along like the baggage carousel at some airport. Just another piece of unclaimed luggage along for the ride.
The ring wasn’t anything of consequence, really. A small stone on a small band made to look even smaller by a permanently swollen knuckle. A meal too full of salt or an especially hot day would have her reaching for the Dawn and a cool tap. And still, it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Of course that’s what all girls say that about their engagement rings. And their baby’s. It’s beautiful. He’s beautiful. She’s beautiful. From the time they see their lovers bent on one knee to the moment they gaze at the purple, pruned faces of their newborn life is perfect and everything is beautiful. A finite and sequenced order of beautiful events loaded into a few brief years. The pinnacle of every girl’s existence. At least it was for Constance. Doe-eyed and eager she had plucked that ring from the box herself, leaving her beau a mere spectator in what was to be the first of many beautiful moments in their now shared life.
Just as simple things tend to do, that ring served as the catalyst for many sleepless nights. Thoughts and ideas swirled in her head, becoming as tangled and unmanageable as the sheets that wrapped themselves around her legs. Nights turned into mornings as floral arraignments and bar menus were charted and then scrapped. Wedding magazines were read by flashlight and pages quietly ripped out and thrown into a pile on the floor. Once the sun would rise on this scene her delirious mind would imagine herself as a tree, rooted in the same place shedding ideas and desires like leaves, only to rake them up and hope they held their promise under the scrutiny of daylight and coffee.
And what of the man whose ring she had unscrupulously plucked from it’s velvet home? He slept, mostly. Offering an approving nod or indiscernible grunt. Her best work was done under the cover of darkness, his lack of consciousness a mere casualty to her constant brain storm.
Aside from whatever mental trepidation she felt, the road before her wasn’t an easy one. This street was notoriously neglected, used more as a turnaround for wayward travelers than an intended destination. It hardly merited the TLC it so desperately craved. A runner who was not wise to it’s cracks and perils might find themselves suddenly careening across the asphalt, tripping at high speed over holes more suited to house koi fish than rainwater and gravel. This, she told herself, was the reason she hated this road. She didn’t want to go for a jog only to find herself lying in the middle of the street, spread eagle and bleeding for the cross stitch lady to find. It wasn’t a pleasant thought, but it was one she tried not to pay much mind to. If she thought about it too much her feet might overthink their steps, they might hesitate and forget to come down at the right time as they pounced over the rubble, turning her into a self fulfilling prophecy. Instead she let herself glide over the ruined roadway, allowing her intuition to override her tendency toward self sabotage.
And after all, it wasn’t just the road that gave her the familiar knot in her stomach. A road is just a road. It doesn’t think, it doesn’t feel, it doesn’t plan. It exists in whatever world you deem it to, just as the houses and the trees and the streetlamps. She watched them all go by, the permanent backdrop to her looped narrative. Butterflies twitched in her stomach and were grounded by a swallow of saliva. It always happened here. In the space between the mauve bungalow and the dried up sluice pipe her body began to betray her. Muscles tensed and contracted, nerves jammed along her rib cage as her stomach rolled itself into pretzel twists. It was here, at the sluice pipe and muscle cramps that she could see it. Until now this house didn’t exist. She could pretend it was a different road in a different town, imagine the houses in different colors, trick her ears into hearing an interstate in the distance or an ocean breeze blowing through sand. She was close enough to see the way the paint curled at the ends of the wood siding, rows and rows of curly cues staring her down, mocking all of her once perfect plans to sand them down and make them new.
In the end, all nuptials are imperfect. Someone will get lost on the way to the church, a bobby pin will come loose from a carefully placed pile of curls, shoes get scuffed and pantyhose run. No amount of time spent browsing The Knot can prepare you for the crushing devastation of a falling sprig of baby’s breath, no amount of setting powder can conceal the heat in your cheeks as the best man slips the F bomb into his speech. None of that mattered, though. Not for Constance. This was the first of her series of beautiful and imperfect moments. She could see them all every time she closed her eyes, snapshots of everything spilling out before her. Babies and pets and Christmas trees. Field trips and vacations, lake trips and museum tours. She was drunk on both champagne and fairy tale endings.
In love and inebriated, she planned.
Sleepless nights, as it turned out, were not reserved exclusively for wedding plans. The dark and the quiet were conducive to many a nocturnal notion. Deposits returned, white dress preserved in a dry cleaner’s keepsake box, and yet she found her mind still churning. When would the next beautiful moment happen? What was she supposed to do now? Does one just simply coast from moment to moment, trusting that pieces will fall into place without force? Surely you couldn’t be expected to just drift along on your cloud of wedded bliss.
Soon, wedding magazines were replaced with free flyers put out by local real estate companies, the ones you find in covered stands outside of interstate gas stations. They rarely changed from one week to the next, but like clockwork she would stopped every friday to pick up that week’s offering. Some days she was certain they had forgotten to re-stock, scrutinizing the previous week’s flyer for just one discrepancy. Sometimes it would come, be it in the form of a faux stamp over a white tudor proclaiming a Price Drop, or the bold print in a too-old listing touting a Motivated Seller.
Once more she was a tree, only this time she envisioned herself an Oak or a Redwood. She stayed up late into the night once more, waking propped against the shabby sofa in their small living room, fingers and thumb still wrapped around a red marker. Defeated, she would slide into bed, her groom asking if she had found the proverbial needle in her bedside haystack. Most days the answer was an invariable ‘No’. Sometimes accompanied by a defeated sigh or a slump of the shoulders, the word would tumble out of her mouth and land somewhere between the pillows. There was a stack of No’s there, hiding between the fitted sheet and mattress pad, piling up between the two of them.
One morning, as the sun stretched over the trees and curled under the closed blinds she offered a different answer. It wasn’t a ‘Yes’, it wasn’t a ‘No’. It was accompanied by both a shrug of the shoulders and a defeated sigh. It was the answer we all give when we feel one of our perfect and beautiful moments slipping from our grasp. It was a ‘Maybe’. It was a possibility, it was a start. It was enough to make her bed mate roll over and meet her eyes, his own words tumbling from his mouth, heavy with hope. Heavy enough to crush the glaring pile of ‘No’s.
She drifted then, a hand finding her bloated stomach, newly aware to the possibility growing inside of her.
There had been a path when she was younger, tucked between a tree line and a neighbor’s fence down the road. Nothing to speak of, really, just a part of the landscape that allowed the neighborhood tweens a space to flick lighters and choke on cigarettes without the shadow of prying adult eyes.
She longed for that path now, a place to dip into and take cover. If only every block in every neighborhood had the ability to swallow you up on demand.
There is no path of least resistance here.
No void in the tree line.
No shelter from prying eyes.
Nowhere to go but forward.
Forward. Heel toe, heel toe. Her body was running, it’s muscles rippling just under her skin in cadence with her steps. Her mind, however, was on a death march. It was here, almost every day, that she felt another piece of her flame go out. Like cinders from a campfire she shed herself all along this road. Big, ashy flakes dislodged into the potholes and crevices, but still, she never felt any lighter.
The house was in full view now, a sloping roof burdened by tree limbs and rotting leaves. Soon the dog would begin to bark, it’s nose shoved through an open window. It wasn’t a mean bark, as far as she could tell. Not a welcoming one, either. It was one that told her not to linger. Not to peak through the curtains or squint at the dormers. Don’t smell the lilacs or talk to the cat. Don’t look at the trees. Don’t look at the swings or the stroller. Don’t look. Just don’t look.
Not unlike weddings, moving house can be maddening. There are the wishes and the wants to balance against the cans and the impossible. It is a never ending, life altering, maniacal set of steps that cannot be reversed once put in motion. And again, much like weddings, it is perfect in it’s imperfection. Glasses break and pictures go missing. Things get lost at the bottom of salvaged cardboard boxes only to reappear on the kitchen counter two weeks later. It’s a dance between bliss and chaos in which everyone has two left feet.
Thankfully, for Constance, her feet were firmly planted. Digging roots, even. This was hers. These shag carpeted stairs with dinged up baseboard were hers to climb. The linoleum kitchen hers to scrub. The living room walls pleaded to be plastered in family photos just as the dining room did. Perhaps this was some kind of caveat for happiness; when walls spoke to you and a dirty kitchen floor was akin to an early Christmas present.
Plans were still being drawn late into the night, only now they were jotted down between bites of ice cream of fistfuls of Tums. Soon, there would be no time for planning. Her nightly sessions would be replaced with soiled diapers and tubes of nipple cream. There would be no time to sketch out the perfect vacation or dissect their 401K. She must do it all right now. Every now and then she considered the notion that other people may not do this sort of thing, sit up late and outline their next 60 years. How do they manage? Do they think through these things over morning coffee and english muffins? Did they flip through their utility bills with jellied fingertips covered by dirty bathrobes? She would imagine it sometimes, her in a lavender bathrobe with a stack of unpaid bills on some sunny Thursday morning. The picture would linger for a moment or two and she would roll it around in her head like a lozenge, until it dissolved and was swallowed back down with the Tums.
As silly as it seems, there is something to be said for the bathrobed bill payers. There is a sort of mutual respect between the cosmos and those who choose not to wrangle it, a lesson often learned the hard way. For things to go awry there must first, in fact, be a plan. Some pre-arrangement to be broken. A missed payment or an overshot deadline. One cannot exist without the other, and once there is a hard set purpose, a path of sequenced and finite moments, there will surely be some sort of virus there to feed on them.
It wouldn’t be all at once, either. The trouble with having things so perfectly in line is just that: a perfect line. A straight shot from one right to the next, down, down, down, down. But unlike dominoes that lie parallel to the floor after their great betrayal, these moments would stack up. One would land right over the next on some great pile of disenchantment, with her pinned at the bottom like a skier in an avalanche.
Heeding the dog’s warning, she hadn’t looked. She averted her eyes and stared into the sun, it’s rays burning her retinas like a tribute to Icarus. A rounded corner and derelict garden shed provided the asylum she so desperately craved at this point in her trek. From here she could breathe and shake and sweat in peace. It didn’t provide shelter from all that haunted her, though. She hadn’t noticed it the first time. Or the second, or maybe even the third. Hunched over and hyperventilating she had missed the vantage point the shed offered. A linear view, straight into a second story window. The second story window. Of the 5 or 6 windows on that floor this was the one fate had bestowed upon her. A trick. A cruel joke that in time, maybe, she too would find humorous. Or at least ironic.
Right now it was neither.
It was a window into a place from which her feet could not carry her. A single, tiny, pinprick of blood. One that could be mistaken for lint or an imperfection in the fabric of her panties. A sight so ordinary it hadn’t registered as alarming until much later, when the pinprick turned into a stain, and the stain turned to a trickle.
Through that window. Right through those curtains, to the left of the medicine cabinet is a splotch on the floor. An imperfection in the print, if you will. Anyone who saw it would think it a rust stain or an old watermark. They wouldn’t know it was a moment, a beautiful and imperfect moment, crashing down through the line of all the other other beautiful and imperfect moments.
She retched, bile rose in her throat like an imminent dam breach. There was nothing there, of course, to entertain the bile anyway. No power bar or sports drink. Nothing for it to break down and liquefy into a nutritious panacea. Instead it worked her insides, tearing into her from the inside out.
The window gazed back at her now, a silent nod in solidarity. The window has seen it’s share too, after all. Privy to the first cascade of bright red liquid leaking onto the vinyl floor followed by her desperate attempts to stymie it’s flow. Wadded toilet paper held in place by soaked lace, her hands frantically working the phone. Soon, the guttural moans and staccato breathing interrupted by blood pressure cuffs and hastily placed intravenous lines.
Bile mixed with dirt now. Yellow liquid trailed down her chin and pooled in a reservoir at her feet, tiny rivers reaching out toward her bent frame. She thought of the bathtub then, the way the water flowed in streams from the faucet instead of one big torrent. It took ages to fill, her patience never a match for it’s languid pace.
Except for once. After all of the planning had been completed. The days and nights spent awake and alone had coalesced into a grand finale, or so she had thought. If she were caught in an avalanche, this was her rescue beacon. A full circle ran around torn out magazines, bedside house hunts, 2am vacation plans. The last of her perfectly imperfect moments, spent in a powder blue tub with yellow tile and a slow drain.
Her feet began to move once more, away from the house and the road and the cross stitch lady.