The first things I noticed when I got back were all the dead plants in the yard. It was as if he'd played God with the garden hose, because the bush beans and peas were all right, but the tomatoes and peppers and corn had dried out. I always like to follow his reasoning when I can, and this, I figured, was his passive-aggressive way of killing what he considered Latin vegetables as a way of punishing me for going to Nicaragua. If I'd gone to Belfast he'd have killed the potatoes, if I'd gone to Lebanon he'd have killed the eggplant. You have to know him to understand how his mind works, and then you have to explain it to him because he pretends not to know himself. I don't bother to do this anymore; since the divorce he's on his own. I just observe.
His truck was gone -- only an oil stain to show where he'd parked on the grass the whole time -- and he'd put a new latch on the gate that was so complicated I had to set my duffel bag down to figure it out. I'd just about decided I'd have to climb over when Cass came running out the front door and down the path toward me. We gripped hands and tried to kiss through the grids. "Are you all right?" I asked.
"I'm fine," she said. She laughed. "Why wouldn't I be?" She slid the gate open and held her arms up, just like she used to do when she was a baby, but she is nine now, and almost too heavy to lift, "You're the one we've been worried about," she said.
"Daddy said you might go to jail down there, and then you'd never get out."
"Your father," I said, "has wish-fulfillment fantasies."
"I'm so glad you're not in jail," Cass murmured, as I hugged her tight and swung her around. "I've missed you so much."
I'd missed her too. It had only been ten days but I felt as if I'd returned from another century. Cass felt huge in my arms, and solid, and astonishingly American, with her pink cheeks and bubblegum smell. She was wearing an old tie-dyed T-shirt of mine and brand new sandals, with, I couldn't help noticing, extremely high heels. He must have enjoyed that; he liked to buy her things he knew I wouldn't approve of. The last time he stayed with her he bought her a white rabbit fur jacket -- "real fur," he kept saying, as if the slaughter of helpless animals was an act to be proud of. We'd had such a fight about it Cass had taken the jacket off and thrown it at us both. Cass -- we agree on this at least -- deserves better parents.
She helped me with my bag and we went into the house, talking all the way. "You were in the paper," she said. "They had a big article on the peace conference and they had your name and everything, and Mrs. Bettinger read it to my class and said you were a heroine."
"A what?" I laughed. I was pleased, but I'd seen too many real heroes and heroines in the last few days. "My main job was to make lists," I told Cass. "It wasn't exciting. I gave a few speeches but mostly I just helped people get off one bus and get onto another." I set my bag down. "How was it for you here? Did you have fun?"
"Not really," Cass said.
I nodded, sympathetic, and glanced across the front room toward the couch. You could tell it had had quite a workout while I'd been gone. There were three big dents in the cushions. The coffee table had been pulled in close, with the remote control at arm's reach, and there were new circle stains on the wood where his ale bottles had been set down, night after night.
"It looks like he slept on that couch," I said.
"Every night?" I stepped closer. I could practically see him there, one hand over his mouth as he snored, the other hand over his crotch. "Just like he used to do when we were married," I marveled. "Did he take his clothes off at least?"
"He said there wasn't any point," Cass said. "He'd just have to wear them the next day."
"What about his shoes?"
"I think he took his shoes off."
"Me?" Cass laughed "You want to know what I slept in?"
"No. I want to know -- were you lonely? With him falling asleep in front TV every night?"
"No," Cass said. "I didn't mind it."
I looked into her face. There were no dark circles under her eyes, no pinch to her lips, no sign of neglect.
"He never talks," I reminded her.
"We had popcorn every night. Kentucky Fried twice. Pizza three times. One night we just had soda and chips."
I shuddered. All those home-cooked casseroles I had left in the freezer -- ignored. The vegetarian cookbooks left out on the counter -- unread. I pulled off my sweater and looked around. The house felt different but in a way I couldn't define, dirtier somehow, although there were no signs of dirt or disorder. The ferns were all dry in their pots but alive. The books I'd been studying before I left were still on the table, collecting dust and overdue fines and the Spanish language tapes my lover, Greg, had smuggled off an Army base were still threaded through the cassette deck.
"It's good to be home," I said, not too sure. "But it smells funny. Do you smell anything?"
"Like socks. Old socks. And machine parts? And, I don't know, musk?"
"No. It smells like home to me."
"I think I'm going through culture shock," I admitted. "Everything down there smelled like lime trees and sewage. And the people had so little. We have so much more. This room has enough...stuff...to furnish an entire village."
I had a great urge to start carting things out to the sidewalk -- lamps we didn't need, extra chairs, the wicker chest, the TV set, the couch -- things other people could use. Then I wanted to scrub, and air, and wash all the windows. But I was tired; the flight back had been a long one, and the conference had worn me out. I felt if I closed my eyes for a second I'd see Alejandra or one of the soldiers and they'd be more real to me than this room. "It's a strange phenomenon," I said to Cass in my best speaker's voice, "but the more you know the less you know. You know?"
"I know," Cass giggled.
"I brought you some presents." I crouched by my pack and started to pull out the books. As always, I'd bought too many books -- "Who," he used to say, "are you going to pay to read them all for you?" I had a lot of newspapers too; it's endlessly amazing to me, the news we don't get in the States -- and my address book was jammed with new names and there were letters I'd promised to forward and articles I'd promised to try and get published. Finally I found the bright embroidered shirt I'd bought Cass and the friendship bracelets the Mendoza children had woven for her. I also brought out the big seashell I'd found on the beach. "You know how I hate to go shopping," I apologized, "and there wasn't much to buy anyway. I almost brought you some bullet shells I found lying in the street, but then I decided to bury them instead. Maybe someone will find them in a thousand years and say, "Gee, I wonder what humans used to use these for?"
Cass smiled, the seashell balanced perfectly in her palm. I kissed her and straightened and went into the kitchen to see if he'd remembered to feed the cats or water the basil in the windowsill. The basil was long gone and it looked like he'd dumped coffee grounds or something on the pots. The cats looked healthy enough but they were so glad to see me, butting their old heads against my throat when I picked them up, that I knew he'd kept them locked out the whole time. I pulled burrs from their fur as I went through the mail. There was a nice letter from Señora Ruiz, thanking me for my speech, and a card from the head of the Direct Aid Committee. There was nothing from Greg. Unless he took it, I thought. But why would he take a letter from Greg? He doesn't know who Greg is, and even if he did, he wouldn't care. "One of your little hippie friends," he'd say. "One of your New Left Overs." He would take one look at Greg, who is six years younger than I, and a therapist to boot, then shake his head "Sonny," he'd say, "if you want to sleep with your mother why don't you just go sleep with your mother?"
I put down the mail and glanced at the message pad on the kitchen wall. There in that stingy scrawl I knew so well were two messages -- two, in the whole time I'd been gone. One was just a number, one digit too short, as if he'd been too tired to write the whole thing out. The other message, marked, "Important! Call back!" was from a local health spa offering a free analysis of body fat.
"That jerk," I muttered.
"Don't put Daddy down," Cass said calmly, slipping into a chair at the kitchen table beside me "He doesn't put you down."
"Of course he does." I showed Cass the newspaper articles he'd cut out and saved for me. One was about a woman just my age who had single-handedly stopped the destruction of ten thousand acres of rainforest. An other gave new evidence that Joan of Arc was a man. Two were about AIDS, and one was about cigarettes causing facial wrinkles. "He just does it in a way no one but I can understand," I explained. I was remembering the birthday card he'd sent last month. It showed a woman in a black cloak walking toward the edge of a cliff. Inside he'd written, in pencil, "Hope some of your dreams come true," and I'd ripped it from corner to corner, thinking, All my dreams are going to come true, and they're not dreams, you fool, they are real choices in a real world and they are going to happen because I'm going to make them happen, and they are going to happen soon.
I lit the first cigarette I'd wanted since I'd been home and exhaled, staring out the kitchen window. It was strange to see my own backyard, and I had the feeling that I wasn't really home yet, that Alejandra or her mother or one of the other volunteers would be walking in any second, talking to me in a language I did not understand, asking for help I could not give. I glanced at Cass. "He didn't see that article that called me a 'heroine' did he?" Cass half-shrugged and ducked her head. "Good," I said. "Because he would have used it to line the rat's cage with."
"Mom." Cass was shocked, I knew, because the only time she calls me Mom is when I'm not acting like one. I stubbed my cigarette out; I felt ashamed. After all, peace begins at home, that's what I tell everyone I talk to and its true, too, in some homes at least. I turned my hand toward Cass, palm up, "I'm sorry," I said. I could see her pet rat's cage in the corner, it was lined appropriately, with the front page of the New York Times. "I overreacted. And anyway," I remembered, "it wasn't the paper that called me a heroine, it was your teacher."
"She said everyone should live by their values like you do," Cass said.
"She did?" Again I felt a rush of pleasure, followed by a rush of doubt. If I were truly living by my values, I thought, I wouldn't be sitting here picking on Cass, who is innocent and undefended and my favorite person in the world. If I were truly living by my values I'd be doing something to right the wrongs I make myself. I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out the piece sugarcane I'd bought her at the market that morning. Cass took it doubtfully and took a few tentative licks at the piece I cut off for her.
"What was it like down there?" she asked, after a while
"Just like here," I said. "Only with people trying to kill you."
Cass waited, patient, and after a second I started to talk. I talked about the young boys in uniform, so playful and shy you think they're joking and then you notice their carbines. About the flatbed truck full of men with their hands tied behind their backs, and about the spotted dog that chased that truck, howling, through six blocks of traffic. I talked about the soldiers I'd seen at the beach, patrolling the empty waves, and about the white pig in the Mendoza's front yard, and the bombed out schoolhouse and the bombed out hospital, and the shops full of car parts and Barbie dolls I'd seen in the city. I talked about Alejandra, a girl her age who had tuberculosis, a disease Cass had never heard of, and about Alejandra's mother, who claimed to see "spirits" when she prayed, the spirits of all the people in her village who had disappeared.
Cass listened, intent. She is a wonderful listener, so different from her father, and she asks all the right questions -- questions, that is, I can't answer. "Why can't people," she asked, "just be nicer to each other? Why can't we all get along?"
"I don't know," I told her. "You'd think it would be so simple, but it's not."
Cass nodded and yawned. It was getting dark and we were both tired. She politely disposed of the sugarcane, gave me a goodnight hug, and went to bed, and I peeled off my filthy jeans and went to the bathroom to take a long shower.
The bathroom looked as unfamiliar as the rest of the house, too big by far, and faintly unclean, and cluttered with things we didn't need. The shower floor had that sticky tar-like substance on it that he used to bring home on his skin from the shop, so I knew he'd at least washed once or twice. I thought of him standing here, naked, in the same space where I stood, with his eyes closed and the water beating down and his bare feet where my feet were, and it gave me the creeps. I saw one of his brown hairs, thin as a spider leg, stuck to the wall, and I aimed the shower at it to hose it down. I wanted every last trace of him out of my house. I turned the water off, glad to step out. As I toweled my hair I noticed a bottle of perfume on the counter, an old bottle of musk stuff I used to wear when we were first married. I sniffed it, curious. Was that what I'd smelled when I first came in the house? Did he wear my perfume when I was gone?
I frowned at the bottle, troubled. It brought back a time I don't think of often, when we were living like gypsies, he and I, traveling up and down the coast in a beat-up old van, picking apples and strawberries, sleeping on beaches, fighting even then, of course, but talking. We did a lot of talking in those years, before he decided to start his own business, before I decided to go back to school, before we had Cass. We did a lot of laughing, and I miss that sometimes, the way we used to roar at each other. Now when he laughs it's this silent wheeze, as if someone had just punched him in the stomach, and he only laughs at the bad news -- my car being towed from the protest at the Naval Yard delighted him for days and the power failure the time I was being interviewed live on the radio.
I put the perfume down, pulled on a robe, and went back to the kitchen to see if he'd left any wine. As I passed the guest room I glanced in. The bed was untouched, the curtains were drawn, and the note I'd left to thank him for staying with Cass was still tucked, unread, under the vase where the roses and poppies had dried on their stalks. He never once took what I had to offer, I thought. He never liked the food I cooked or the books I read or the friends I brought home. He wasn't interested in the classes I went to or the papers I wrote or the ideas that made me want to shout all night. "It's such an act," he'd say, when I'd come home late, flushed and hoarse from one of the meetings. "You're such a fake." And his eyes, when he looked at me then from his place on the couch, were almost wide open, almost alive. Then they'd hood again, and he'd turn from me.
I picked up the vase, crumpled the note, and went into the kitchen. The garbage bag was full of ale bottles and pizza boxes and losing lottery tickets and TV listings. I made some instant coffee. I'd lived on nothing but coffee for weeks, it seemed, and I was used to it; it didn't even keep me awake anymore. As I stirred in the honey the phone rang. It was Greg. He was three hundred miles away, at another conference, and I could hear a woman laughing and two men arguing behind him. "Hey," he said, sounding far-off and rushed, "How was your time down there? I want to hear all about it. But maybe when I get back, OK? Right now I just wanted you to know there's a special on TV tonight about the Sandinistas."
"OK," I said. "I'll watch it. And Greg? A professional question? What would you think of a man who got into a woman's perfume?"
"I'd think he wanted to be close to her in some way," Greg said. "Got to run. I'll call." He blew me a kiss and hung up.
Close to me? I carried my coffee to the couch and sat down. The pillows reeked of that old musk stuff and I pushed them away, sickened. The way to be close to me is to talk to me, and let me talk back, and to touch me, and let me reach out. He couldn't do that; he didn't know how. The only thing he could do was lie on this couch, night after night, and push me away when I got too close. "Can you stand somewhere else?" he'd said once, when I was trying to tell him about an article I was trying to write. "You're blocking the light."
"That's not light," I pointed out. "That's the TV. Don't you know the difference?"
"No," he drawled, dumb, "I don't know the difference. I'm just the bozo who brings home the bacon. You know the difference. Right? So why don't you tell me -- like you tell everyone else, over and over, on and on, all the time. Why don't you help me understand the great big world?" he asked. "Why don't you change my life?"
His life. I remembered something Alejandra's mother had asked me. "Do you think," she had asked, "we make our own lives?" And I'd answered, No, how could we? -- for I was thinking of her, and the horrible things that had happened to her, none of them her fault or her choice. But what about him? Look how he lives. He still sleeps in the shop. He started to sleep there before he moved out, and he hasn't moved since. He has a television there, of course, a huge color set, and a mattress on the floor in back. He has a refrigerator with nothing in it, and a hot plate he doesn't bother to use. He has some of Cass's artwork on the walls, and a photo of the three of us at Disneyland when she was six, and a calendar that still shows snow. He's alone most of the day and most of the night. He meets women in bars, and there was one girl, an aerobics instructor, who lasted almost three months. "She had problems," he said -- which means, of course, she had life, she had hope, she had moved on. He has no men friends outside the shop. He sees Cass once a week, on Sunday afternoons, and they go to the movies; Cass says he sleeps. He's lost twenty pounds and still wears that old blue jacket with the grease stain on the cuff. He won't see a therapist or get involved in a support group; when I suggest these things he just stares at me, his eyes bright with thoughts he finds very funny.
I sat my coffee cup down with a bang on the table and reached for the remote control, wiping it first on my robe. I clicked on the set. There was the end of some comedy show: stupid. Then one of those wrestling matches he used to watch all the time: stupid stupid. Then the news: stupid stupid stupid. Then the show Greg wanted me to see. Some liar from Associated Press was asking some liar from the Pentagon all the wrong questions and getting all the wrong answers and despite myself I started to drift off. My head kept getting heavier and heavier and I could feel myself fade.
I had this image -- not a dream exactly, just an image that kept getting bigger and bigger. It was something I'd seen down there, from the bus, when we were driving through cane fields. It was a turkey vulture, tall and black and ugly the way vultures are, with their bare red necks and bald heads, and it was sitting on a fence post hunched over watching something in the dirt below. "Look," the man beside me had said, "he's waiting for his dinner to die," and we'd shivered and talked about other things, and I hadn't thought about that bird again, but now it appeared to me, familiar and close, and I realized it was perched on the edge of the couch. It was peering down, patient, waiting for me to get tired and give up. I wanted to, too. The conference -- I could never tell Greg this -- but the conference hadn't accomplished a thing. Alejandra was still dying, her mother was seeing new spirits every day, the baby boys were still aiming their deadly toys. What's the point? I thought. What makes me think I can make any difference? I'm as weak and shallow and false as he said I was. The vulture bent close and I hated him so I jerked up with a start. My head was buzzing and my throat was dry and my legs were numb, but I got to my feet, and even though I knew I was being what he used to call "ridiculous," I watched the rest of that damn show with my arms crossed, standing up, and when that jerk from the Pentagon said, "This is not a war, see, what we have down here is not a war, it's what we call a 'low intensity conflict,'" I hooted so hard that I woke Cass up and she came trailing out, still wearing the embroidered shirt I'd brought her, stumbling a little with sleep as she put her arms around me, saying, "Come to bed now, Mom. You're home."
Copyright © 1996 by Molly Giles