Sarah wondered, as she hung up the tea towel, if her hands carried the faintest trace of the -washing--up gloves. Not how she would like to be perceived, she thought, -forty--something and with an odor of damp rubber clinging to her fingertips. She was always mindful, as she examined a patient’s eyes, that they -were able to scrutinize her as closely as she could them. Each pore of the skin; the vagaries of the hairline; the crumpling around the mouth; the bruised gray beneath the eye; a residue of milk in the corner of the lip from a cappuccino grabbed on the walk to work. How quickly, she knew, the intimate can become pedestrian. How quickly one loses all -self--consciousness, close to a man’s face, a woman’s face, an old face, a child’s face; looking deep behind the pupil at the spider’s web of capillaries; looking for cataracts, for signs of glaucoma, all the time the patient’s breath repetitive on her cheek.
The eyes as the window of the soul, there was a notion that could be quickly disabused. Instead, eyes watery and -red--rimmed from attempts to use contact lenses. Eyes that squinted, twitched, blinked shortsightedly at her charts. Sarah considered that her job had probably cured her of the inclination to look into someone’s eyes as a gauge of personality, of veracity, of intent. No, eyes -were too full of symptoms and contraindications for her; she looked elsewhere in the body for the clues that helped her piece together her sense of others. Perhaps this was why, recently, she kept her eyes closed when she had sex with Michael; kept her eyes shut, and thereby circumvented looking into his.
Sarah hadn’t been to a wedding for years. Relatively recently a rash of christenings, and then nothing. If she saw a bride on the way to the village church, or saw the groom and ushers smoking a hasty cigarette by the porch, she was increasingly inclined to wonder how on earth they summoned the will to do it at all. How, at that stage, could people be so blind to the -self--discipline, the -self--sacrifice, that marriage exacted? Could they not anticipate how hard it is, how inappropriate it was to be preoccupied with the height of floral centerpieces, or the rear view of a dress, or a piece of music chosen to accompany the pro-cession, when instead they should be focused on how they would look at this person for thirty years and not scream?
She thought of a friend who had casually joked about her husband, adding that this, of course, was before I started hating him. And they both laughed, in a shared perception that she both did and did not hate him, and that such moments of intense resentment, of cold fury at being saddled with the same person, -were entirely reasonable. So when she saw a bride, and thought of -ribbon--tied boxes of sugared almonds given as bridal favors to guests, she thought it was probably all gloomily symbolic. The almonds, when left to discolor and age, smelled bitter, like arsenic; from sugar to poison, that was how it could be.
Not that Sarah would have categorized her own marriage in that way, or at least mostly not in that way. She understood her marriage to be a compound of what once distinctly felt itself to be love in all its entirety, now bundled with the attrition of the familiar, the predictable, and the deadening of the years since. She saw their relationship meshed and wrapped by the sticky ties of children; a weft and weave that frequently availed itself of companionability and good humor, and the ability to share a concern about one of the children with an appropriate balance of maternal and paternal perspectives (mostly, Come on, Sarah, I think you may be overreacting).
Sometimes she hoped that they -were moving toward a state of grace that was mostly founded on gratitude for no disasters shared, and which would allow them to cherish each other in their life together after the children -were grown, and would avail them the gift of warm silence and thankfulness. Not that any of this prevented her, occasionally, unexpectedly, looking at the children’s orthodontist with an awakening of desire, with a sudden hot longing to be held and kissed by a different man; to slough off her existence as Michael’s wife, and be able to place her hand on another man’s face and kiss him -wholeheartedly. Sarah understood this as an offshoot of the relentlessness of monogamy, but it did not make its occasional emergence any less disconcerting or wistful. Suddenly, in the middle of a street, to see a man she found attractive and to understand he was not an adventure that would be hers. (Some women, she knew, did not feel any constraint, but Sarah was a keeper of promises, and would turn her eyes from a quick connected gaze. What this told her about herself she felt disinclined to pursue. Introspection, she had been brought up to believe, was a sword that could debilitate as much as clarify.)
As she looked at her face in the mirror and blended in her foundation, calling to the children to get their bags ready for school, and reminding them it was swimming today, Sarah saw that she indisputably looked her age; her skin seemed slightly separate from the flesh beneath, and there was something a little gaunt about her mouth. Each pregnancy, each birthday as if something slipped softly away until she was somewhere different. Not invisible, but somehow cloaked with a layer of fine dust; her previous, sensual, shimmering young self hidden beneath the sediment of wife, mother, and -house-keeper.
In the main, though, life was good. Michael was a partner in a small legal practice and specialized in asylum seekers. She had lost count of the dinner parties they had been to where guests recounted tales of people clinging to the underside of the Eurostar train, such was their eagerness to be the recipients of social ser-vices and the National Health.
Sarah could only think of the times she had gone to Michael’s office and seen men with wary eyes and silent wives, smelling of food cooked in overcrowded kitchens and wearing donated clothes and a crushed, bemused air at where their dignity and humanity had been filed in the pro-cess. She was always conscious that for someone who looked into people’s eyes for a living, she could rarely bring herself to look into theirs. And so she sat at dinner parties while Michael solidly, predictably, refused to engage with other guests’ prejudices, and thought of how people’s perceptions of a promised land -were frequently misplaced, and that her own existence frequently seemed a planet away (was it possible that only last week she had written a letter on behalf of the Council of the Protection of Rural En-gland, supporting their view about a local bridleway?) and that she was proud of Michael because how to be good troubled her, too, and it assuaged her that he so manifoldly was. (Is worrying about the preservation of the green belt a contribution or a luxury? she had asked Michael one night last week in bed, and he had smoothed her hair from her forehead and said You should worry less about how you fit in.) In the circumstances, it seemed remarkable that he should be so little troubled himself.
Sarah shooed the children into the car and sent Jack back into the hallway for his swimming kit, and remembered another dinner party where they met an architect who was married to a younger, second wife called Candida. How, Sarah wondered, could her parents have named her that? She could not dispel from the woman’s cheekbones, from her long limbs, and her cropped dark hair, an aura that was bubbling, yeasty, malodorous. And when the architect said, Unless your first wife or husband is a terrible person, I mean capable of real wrongdoing, I would always recommend staying with them because the alternative is so disruptive and painful for everyone involved, Sarah watched as Candida’s fork stopped halfway to her mouth, as if she might speak then decided not, and Sarah wondered what barrage of chaos lay beneath his words and her silence, and looked across the table at Michael in a small moment of gratitude.
Sarah kissed the children and deposited them in the lane that led to school, and resolved (not for the first time) that she should really think less about what made other people tick. It was not remotely selfless, or altruistic, she understood that; more like doing a jigsaw puzzle, where she was continually intrigued at how others -were composed. (At school, a new mother last term who had introduced herself as Cordelia; Goodness, Sarah had responded, isn’t that something to live up to? Not at all, Cordelia had responded, I love it and I am always the only one. Sarah had driven all the way to work wondering why she would have considered the name Cordelia such a blow; another expectation to fulfill, when there -were so many she felt lay unachieved.)
The architect’s comment had sustained her, though, through the period of half a term of school when Michael had been so busy she had hardly seen him, and when she felt like a single parent anyway. When he came home, he was terse and irritable with her, and she viewed him as a marginally unfair schoolteacher, whom she could never do anything but disappoint.
She was always intrigued by the point at which these remote standoffs dissolved into more amicable terrain (this time when he had gone into the garden and picked her a handful of purple lilac and wrapped it in a twist of silver foil, and given it to her as she sat at the kitchen table reading the Sunday paper. She had felt awkwardly moved that he had gone outside with scissors, and a length of foil, and done this for her in a way that was unostentatious and thoughtful and made her feel real affection for him as she kissed him thank you.)
Mostly, Sarah told herself, their marriage was good (now, as she sat stationary in the traffic because of the roadworks). If anyone had asked her to describe him, she would have struggled beyond words like conscientious and decent and kind, although she remembered how the curve of his smile, in the early years, had made her stomach jump, and how she had loved to place her hand on the small of his back and feel his spine beneath her palm. Their relationship, she saw clearly, was upholstered by the wadding of their shared experience; each childbirth, where he had sat and held her hand, reading the clues from the crossword she liked to do, rubbing her feet with lavender oil and not reacting when she told him, Oh fuck you, it’s fine for you in the spectator seats. She still knew the things she liked to watch him do; the way he wrapped presents with a neat fold on the cut side of the paper; the way he peeled oranges, and tied knots; the way he could pack suitcases into the car without wasting an inch of space. Balanced against these -were the rage she felt for the way he tossed coffee grounds into the sink and left them to discolor the enamel, even though she repeatedly asked him to stop; the way he left apple cores in the side pocket of her car to rot and stink; the way he expected sex as a ritual, a habit, rather than as an extension of warmth of feeling, or as an expression of anything other than his need to ejaculate.
In this way, Sarah understood marriage to be a series of checks and balances, amounting to something that was broadly good, occasionally gratifying, and sometimes only tolerable, but which occasionally made her feel as if she had a load strapped to her back that was bending each of her vertebrae until she was so twisted out of shape she could not stand up straight. On these occasions, it was what she felt for their children that made her feel she would always be able to fill her lungs to capacity.
Sarah was aware, too, that she had spent almost as much of her life with Michael as without him. They had met while at university and married not long after, so the person she could summon up who was not his wife was so young, so unformed, so implacably confident in the face of life, it was hard even to connect with the memory of her.
She remembered riding pillion on a motorbike around an island in Greece, and the wheel catching in a potholed road, she and her then-boyfriend spilling off onto the verge, her ankle torn and bleeding from the -still--spinning back wheel. She had looked at her foot, before the pain had started to bite, before she began picking the small bits of grit that clung to the edges like clams, and wondered how this could possibly have happened. There, in full view of the bowl of turquoise sea, the cicadas singing in the long grass, a frugal lunch of rolls and taramasalata and olives in her rucksack. Sarah realized retrospectively that, aged twenty, one simply did not expect things to turn out badly. Between herself and her friends was somehow an assumption that life was benevolent and they -were lucky; so they walked through underpasses late at night and lived in apartments in -run--down areas, and never for a moment considered that it -wouldn’t be all right.
She realized, simply, that they -were not wired for the possibility of disaster. Was it childbirth, she wondered later, that made women cross a divide between the assumption that everything was benign, to a state of constant reckoning with life; fearful that tragedy and awfulness might lash out at any moment? The loving of something so infinitely vulnerable as a baby, it was that, Sarah had decided, that did for most women. One only had to stand over the crib of a newborn infant, hypnotically watching the rise and fall of each breath, afraid to leave the room lest five minutes later the tiny rib cage might not -rise—just at the moment she stepped into the -shower—so that one leaned over the crib making pacts with God or the universe in order to leave the room and for the -draw--in of oxygen to continue.
Most of all, in their early days, Sarah decided that Michael made her feel safe. She felt she could trust him, that he would always tell her the truth, and that in his personality, what might have evolved as intensity had manifested itself as meticulous attention to detail, and she was comfortable with the knowledge that this exonerated her from the same.
Sarah could make mud pies and decorate them with flowers for the children in the knowledge that the tax disk would never be out of date on the car, and that when they left to go on -holiday—perhaps to drive all the way down to -Italy—Michael would have appropriately -color--coded folders with the relevant sections of the map, and before the harmonization of the euro, each national currency contained in the same folder as the section of the map. (Her mother, Lydia, who had loved a series of emotionally indulgent actors, had said, God, darling, how can you bear it, and Sarah had laughed and said, It’s probably the contrast to my childhood that accounts for its appeal.)
With hindsight she wondered whether that was why her mother had been so unmaternal. Lydia had always been so busy nurturing men who would storm through the door and worry about their art, or, more frequently, the line of their teeth or the timbre of their voice.
Why, Sarah had asked her mother when she was sixteen, do you always fall for men who make a living pretending to be someone -else and being applauded for it? Isn’t that, clearly, a recipe for a lack of honesty?
It’s the drama, her mother replied. I’m addicted to the intensity of it all.
Even now, in her seventies, Lydia could still be relied on to waft in to see the children, wrapped in an enormous magenta scarf, wearing eyeshadow as green as a pea, and tell them stories of old shows on seaside piers, while they sat and listened, mouths -half--open in concentration, and Sarah found she could forgive her all of it because at least she had not aged into monochrome conformity, as she suspected she herself might do.
Michael’s mother was so very different from her own, it had been easy to love her, too; for her dependability, her kindness, her emotional sanity in contrast to Lydia’s. Michael’s lack of curiosity about his adoption had always intrigued her. When he told her, it was not announced as some great revelation, as something that might have a bearing on anything at all. Instead, he told her as if saying that he had been unable to book a table at a restaurant. She could picture it still, on a picnic by the river, after she had made a joke about hoping their children would not inherit her mother’s taste for the fantastic.
The next time Sarah saw Sheila, she wondered who his birth mother might have been, and how she might have been different; at the same time seeing Michael and Sheila together and recognizing that her calm hands had somehow infused his. Her own appetite for drama, however, provoked her to ask him: As a child, -weren’t you always weaving stories about being a tragically -given--up child? Didn’t you stand at bus stops and imagine your mother had just gone by in a blue car? No, he had replied, as far as I was concerned, as far as I am concerned, I was holding my mother’s hand at the bus stop.
Yet when Sarah gave birth to her first child it was all the more remarkable (she could still summon up Rory, new and bloody in her arms, his mouth a perfect bud, his dark eyes searching beyond him, his fingers clasped around one of hers). The streaks of her blood, his blood, the white chalky vernix, all of it seemed to reinforce how much each of her children belonged to her: belonged to her in a way that was knotted into her bones, her muscles, her organs, into each breath of hers that had oxygenated them during their nine months in her womb.
When Sheila and Henry came to visit her in the hospital (Sheila smoothing the corners of the sheet and then reaching forward to kiss them both), Sheila took the baby so tenderly in her arms, with such real plea-sure in her smile, but Sarah could not help herself from thinking that her -mother--in--law had no ge-ne-tic connection, no corporeal connection with this baby at all. (Was that part of the pro-cess of birthing, she now wondered in retrospect, that one’s perspective became so relentlessly physical, biological. At the moment she handed Rory to Sheila it was with the same anxiety as if to a stranger who might not care for him at all.)
When Grace was born and turned yellow with jaundice (her blood tussling with the traces of her mother’s blood in her system), it was just another sign, Sarah felt, of how intrinsically physical the knot of motherhood was.
Yet when she stopped feeling wary of Sheila holding Rory, she felt a small pang of pity (her breasts leaking and throbbing as she sat there) that this moment had never been Sheila’s; her birthed, crumpled baby held precious in her arms.
Later, when Rory was about six months old, Sarah looked back on her feelings with a small sense of shame. She watched Sheila feed him pureed vegetable, carefully wiping his chin with the spoon. She watched her sing to him old songs and lullabies, and clap her hands for him, praise him, and cradle him in her competent arms. Sarah pictured it, later, when her children all adored their grandmother, as if Sheila had knitted blood corpuscles and bone tissue out of thin air. In loving them and caring for them, she had biologically meshed them to her.
When Rory’s attempt at saying grandma became Fanma (and Grace and Jack followed suit), it seemed so appropriate to Sarah that they had named her for themselves. She felt badly, in retrospect, about asking Michael whether he had wondered about his birth mother driving past in a blue car. Yet when she kissed her sleeping children in their beds on a summer night, their warmth on her lips and the scent of their skin inhaled deep into her lungs, she felt again the impact that they -were born of her body.
It had all seemed so fixed, so complete, so smooth and steady until now, as Sarah parked the car and began to walk past the supermarket to work, with the small hot thought of Harry like a vein throbbing insistent beneath her skin. Harry. First of all, how ridiculous that she should now feel this for Harry. Harry, who had been Michael’s best friend since university days. Harry, whose younger face smiled out of their wedding photos. Harry, who suddenly seemed to incite such a longing in her, such a desire to reach out and touch him, that last Sunday when he, Kate, and the children came to lunch, Sarah had got up from the table to get something from the larder and had stood with her palms and her forehead against the cool wall and told herself not to look at him, to banish the flush from her cheeks and instead to ask if anybody wanted some cranberry, and check if Jack had been able to cut his meat properly. Are you okay? Michael had asked her when she sat down (typical, that he should have noticed her red face). Yes, she had replied, fanning herself with her hand, I think perhaps I drank the wine too quickly, aware that she and Harry -were employing all their energy not to look at each other, and that their not looking was requiring every ounce of her emotional self.
Ridiculous, also, that this was not some new passion, a new face met in the round of her existence. Once in Spain, she had watched an old olive press operated by a donkey trudging in slow, meticulous circles; with each orbit completed, a resonant creak of the press. It was indulgent, she knew, to see a meta-phor in it, rather than a historical solution to extract oil from an olive, but the tread of her life was familiar and she had not met someone -new—at a hockey match while she waited -half--frozen for the children, or at the juice bar after yoga, or at the Italian class she attended four sessions of last spring. Instead, it was Harry, Harry in a pro-cess that was insidious, velvety, so that even now, as she pushed open the door of the practice and greeted Helena the receptionist, she was aware of a small per-sis-tent softness at the base of her throat, and the want of him like a liquid warmth beneath her skin.
Beginnings always made Sarah feel comfortable. She felt that if one could trace things back to their origin, and place a finger right where they started, the ability to do this made eventual understanding possible. But with Harry, how to do this with Harry? Had it been brewing for years, contrary to this feeling of being ambushed, catapulted into somewhere with a landscape that she had not thought to see again in her life. (Again, her mother’s voice in her head: God, Sarah, why are you so indelibly middle aged?)
The answer was one she could not expect her mother to understand; her mother who had borne one child before she was twenty and then carried herself as if it had never happened to her body, or her life, at all. Sarah saw herself as a mother first and everything -else afterward, and even though she was confident Michael desired her and that he did not look at her body with critical eyes, she felt it visibly to bear the marks of multiple births. (How did her breasts suddenly become so old, the skin resembling the film of milk on top of a cup of coffee?) As for other men, until now, she had never thought much beyond kissing the orthodontist, and all of her escapist fantasies -were most definitely clothed and most definitely fantasy.
And now with Harry, this territory that was so disconcerting, so astonishing. The feeling of standing on ground with a momentum of its own; a torrent of slick, gleaming earth that might slide beneath her feet, taking her somewhere that was very far from the neatness of her life. And in spite of its relentlessness, she knew this neatness mattered to her; a notion of accrued integrity, of time invested in fidelity. On her pillow at night she had told herself, This must stop, as if her feelings could be put firmly away like groceries unpacked, and then in her dreams there would be Harry again, and she would wake in the morning with the sense of him dewy on her skin. Easy, too, if she could regard it as an unrequited crush, a small, ridiculous fantasy that would blow itself out like a cloud in a squally sky, but since the day in the meadow, and the prospect of choice he gave her, the choice of how most definitely not to be faithful, she had moved from the olive treadmill to the wet slick of earth, and she could not reach out her hand and find something to steady herself.
Copyright © 2008 by Kay Langdale. All rights reserved.