By Olivia Lowenberg
I waited for John’s letters through snow and sun, light and dark. My hair got longer, and my sister Alice got pregnant. I was nauseated by the man at the post office, who always mispronounced my name, whose eyes saw through me. He kept that building so cold I thought my bones would freeze.
Sheila said that in order to feel better I’d have to think of something bad about the man at the post office. Worst I could picture was a dog biting the man’s dick. John’s last letter arrived on a Friday and by then I was so detailed in thinking about the man at the post office with a chewed-up penis that I almost missed it when he called me from the line.
John wrote to me on white stationary with red trim, the kind they sold for just a penny at government shops if you couldn’t afford “real” paper. They sold it in bulk, and it was thin as toilet paper and John’s pen had bled clear through the page. But the letter was mine. In it, he talked about bitter shadows, the lonely dead. He included some photos of the things he couldn’t put into words: surgical masks, six feet apart. He wrote that peaches were the first thing he wanted to taste when he came back. I knew the feeling.
I waited for him at the station. Sheila asked me to pick him up because she was working. I stood there with the note Sheila gave me marking the train he’d be on and which platform it was expected to arrive at. Sheila’s handwriting was spidery and exact; I’d watched her hand moving as she wrote, mesmerized by the tiny muscles under her skin.
I carried a cupcake for John’s birthday, the peaches, and a half-finished knitted sweater that I had procrastinated on too long. Now the sleeves were unraveled and ratty, the pattern vague. John folded out of the middle distance and walked towards me. The couple sitting next to me shared a joke and a pretzel, his laughter layering over hers. John was gray and stooped. We hugged awkwardly; because he was taller, he had to bend down to hug me, but our arms ended up just encircling air.
John asked about Sheila, because he cared, and Alice, because he was polite. I told him that Alice was pregnant, and that soon her round belly would become a tangle of baby limbs: another person to feed. My phone rang as I talked, and I let it go to voicemail.
John listened to the story, nodding when he needed to, murmuring when he had to. Then he finally asked me about myself. I wondered if he could tell that I wasn’t the one who’d chosen the peaches; that was all Sheila’s doing. Some welcome present. I handed him the half-formed sweater by way of answering his question.
He turned the lumpy yarn over in his hands. “This is what you made for me?”
“What I tried to make,” I corrected. “Because the other women, you know, they would make sweaters, something so their men could be identified.” Pause. “So, I thought you would want one too.”
"That's what I thought," John said. "You're a damn fool." He stuffed the sweater in his bag. We drove back to Sheila’s house in silence. Intimate images flowed through my mind, none of them real or true.
Sheila didn’t answer the door even after I knocked twice. I slid the spare key from under the welcome mat and opened the door in one fluid motion. My hands had practice with it from years of visiting her, from when she was still mine.
“He’s back,” I yelled, stepping into the entryway, and Sheila came running.
I took my mask off and went upstairs to the guestroom in order to give them some privacy. Moments later I heard their voices rising in a familiar symphony, the shape of an argument that many couples were tracing: he was never home, she was ungrateful, there’s a war, circumstances on the ground change.
They finally stopped yelling. I had the kind of full-body hunger that curls inward, that turns your stomach to paper and creates a kind of high. I went down to get some food. Kitchen: shriveled blueberries languishing in a bowl, stale bread growing mold on the counter. Sheila never threw anything out, especially not now, with food prices being what they were, with nothing the same.
John marched into the kitchen. He looked me over, got a knife, and sliced a peach. My phone rang again; I ignored it.
“I’m sorry Sheila and I argued.” He placed the knife he was using at a bad angle on the cutting board; the blade would slice through any hand if it tipped.
“If you’re really sorry, then I accept it.”
John laughed, maybe at the look on my face, maybe at something else. He slid down the counter towards me. I failed a swim test once, and I had that same drowning feeling now. But there was a cliché feeling of desire, too, for the love story, the sicko pop song, for tangles of innocence and need. Yeah, maybe. On my side of life, if I could get there, maybe I wouldn’t have to climb so many stairs.
Something shifted in him, and if I was right, then the next ripple would be mine. He pressed me against the wall. I opened my thighs and let him in. A songbird chirped on the windowsill: something so plain and simple, unfolding and spreading its feathers, existing. I remembered someone else. John moved more urgently now, and I made the kinds of sounds I had heard behind closed doors in college. The songbird looked at me and flew away. I wondered where Sheila was, if she had heard me. If she cared.
John zipped up his pants and went back to slicing the peach. Sheila came downstairs, rubbing lotion into her hands. The songbird came back to the windowsill, thought better of it, and flew away again. I had a wet spot on my skirt. I could lie about it if Sheila asked me, but she and John were already back in their own world, their argument forgotten.
I went back upstairs to the guestroom and looked out the window. Sheila never cared about the house the way her father had. The property was once renowned as the most well-maintained in the neighborhood; now people avoided it if they could, maybe sensing the doubt and fear that lived in the floorboards because of the war. I knew that Sheila used to pay a neighbor fifteen dollars a week to mow the lawn just to keep weeds at bay, but that was it, and now, with things the way they were, I doubted that he would be coming back anytime soon to slice away forgotten flowers.
I imagined that man existing with Sheila. She would anticipate his arrival each week, maybe even wait for him at the door. She would show him where, and how, she wanted the lawn landscaped. They would both wear masks and stand six feet apart, but they would slip up, accidentally move closer together. She would shield him from the wind.
The last time I’d visited, all I’d heard were cars on the street, but the war had brought wildlife back to Sheila’s yard, so I heard that too. Cicadas hummed; a bear snorted; someone climbed up the stairs.
I wasn’t in the mood to see either Sheila or John, but when I turned, I saw Hoyt, Alice’s partner. Not the face I was expecting. They did not look happy.
“You weren’t answering your phone, so I had to drive all the way here from Graniteville,” Hoyt said. “Alice has been asking for you.”
“Alice? Asking for me? Since when?”
“Since the baby arrived yesterday,” they said. “I guess you weren’t answering your phone then, either.”
I didn’t have an easy relationship with Alice. We were food and hunger siblings; one of us consuming, the other always consumed. I was relieved when Alice married Hoyt two years ago. Here was someone to feed her and to be fed, to wear her work boots and share her bed, to take over the task of mothering her even as she fell into motherhood herself. Hoyt had blue eyes and usually wore a smile, but that smile was gone now.
“No, I wasn’t answering my phone,” I said. “John came back.”
Oh, they knew. They knew. Hoyt could probably smell it on me. “I’m happy that you’ve been getting what you think you need,” Hoyt said, “while your sister lies in the hospital, wondering where you are.”
I could picture Alice: hair fanned out on a pillow, the green dye faded out from closed hair salons and the baby and all. My sister, who I had always hated and loved in equal measure, with hair the color of a gremlin.
“What does she want, anyway?”
“She wants you to name the baby.”
I tasted sugar and bile: sweet in the mouth, bitter in the throat, foul in the belly. My arms circled air. “Why me?”
“Because she loves you.”
Hoyt didn’t wait for an answer and pulled me down to the car. It seemed that no response would be enough, not in the urgent now. Sheila laughed as we left; I heard John whispering to her. It was raining. Had it always been raining? The rain went down my shirt as soon as I stepped outside and soaked me through. I wrapped my jacket tighter, a futile attempt against the wind; I should have worn something heavier with a hood. Hoyt urged me to get in the fucking car. The rain came down harder, spilling into my mouth and eyes, suffocating me.
Beneath the flood, tiny sea. Hoyt got me into the car and slammed the door. They turned the heat on full blast until I finally stopped shivering and tossed me a fresh pair of socks and shoes from the back seat. I had forgotten Hoyt’s compassion and grace for anyone and everyone – the fact that they would even have extra socks and shoes in the car for emergencies.
“Thank you,” I said, my teeth no longer chattering. Hoyt smiled. We drove the rest of the way in an easier silence. I sometimes looked at people to see what their partners saw, and I recognized what must have pulled Alice to Hoyt.
At the hospital, Hoyt explained the situation to the nurses in short bursts: we’ll wear masks, it’s urgent, life and life. They waved us through – maybe Hoyt had paid them beforehand to let us pass, who knew – and we got in the elevator, pushing past birth to birth to my sister with the gremlin hair. She slept with the baby wrapped in her arms. Hoyt crumpled. I had never seen them struggle before. But being here, so close to the hand that feeds, would crumple anyone. It confined even me.
I understood immediately that naming Alice’s baby would not be an easy redemption, something I could hold up to Sheila like a moral business card. I would have to settle for a piecemeal salvation. When Alice finally opened her eyes, I was ready. I held out my arms with a name on my lips, the sound forming on mother tongue.
Olivia Lowenberg lives and writes in Boston, MA. Her writing focuses on the complexity of women's emotional lives and desires.