In Search of a Bird
by Mary Helen Specht
Caroline Catter loves the first night in a new place. After unpacking, she slowly goes through every room, running her hand along blown-glass vases, moving rugs with her feet, opening drawers and cupboards. There is the iron. There are the family albums. She skims the titles on the bookshelf, takes a few down to see if they've actually been read: The Complete Tales of Nikolai Gogol. The Lover. Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. And diaries. When she finds them, Caroline puts aside the diaries to read later. She saves the kitchen for last, checking for things she can use a little of without anyone really noticing. Pumpkin butter. Papaya in white grape juice. Slivered almonds. Once, a childless middle-aged couple filled an entire shelf of their fridge with bars of homemade fudge with a note that said "Eat!?!"It can take a new place days, sometimes weeks, before it recovers from the trauma of its owner's absence and fully accepts Caroline. Walls might buckle, herringbone wallpaper ripple as she walks by. Faces in portraits or picture frames might grimace, unnaturally contort as if in great, sudden pain. Windows might tear up with condensation, even in the driest of weather. Working in the study, she'll swear she hears the silverware in the kitchen drawers jangling. Every house sitter becomes accustomed to this over time. Caroline lies on the kitchen linoleum or stone or Spanish tile with her arms wide open, settling into the place, allowing the floor to rub up against her and get comfortable. She keeps the house or town home or apartment immaculately clean, and soon enough it quiets itself. Soon enough it grows used to her.
When her father dies from an aneurysm far away on the Gulf Coast, Caroline has just turned thirty-one years old and is reading in bed, snaked around a body pillow and buried beneath eight wine-colored blankets layered on top of her like baklava. She has no idea the Galveston hospital staff are trying frantically, but unsuccessfully, to get in touch with her, his only living relative.
The four-poster bed in which she is lying has red velvet draped on three sides; when she sleeps there, she feels as if she were in some luxurious tent far away from the New England winter, in the desert maybe. Before falling asleep, she is trying to read some of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities-which she found on the shelf creased as if it had been rolled up in someone's back pocket or used as a makeshift telescope-though it is hard to concentrate after four stiff birthday drinks, and the words swim a little.
And she thinks of her own life and of how nice it is to be justified by literature; she is not running from place to place-running away-but rather, like the people of Calvino's Eutropia, she is allowing mystery into her life. She believes this.
It is as she dozes off that it happens, but she knows she is awake because her dreams are never so sharp and clear, but soft like the opaque glass of shower stalls. It is the glow she notices first, on the outside of her eyelids; she is fair-eyed and sensitive to light. There is a candle. A man holding a candle. Her father holding a candle in the corner of the bedroom.
There are tests now on the Internet, he says-his wiry body casting a long shadow on the wall, purple wax dripping down his fist-tests where you answer a bunch of questions about smoking and eating vegetables and they tell you how long you're likely to live. One of the questions is whether you're right- or left-handed. What do you suppose that has to do with it?
But what the hell are you doing here? she asks, moving aside the red velvet drapery.
I'm dead. I can do what I want, he says. At least between one and two in the morning. Those are the rules.
This is how Caroline finds out about her father's death. He tells her how the aneurysm came on suddenly, like a rug was pulled out from under him, while he was washing the dishes by hand as he did every night, three empty beer cans on the windowsill, three more to go before bed.
It was a real bitch, he says. And nobody's stopped by to feed the dog.
Caroline flings off the mountain of blankets and slides out of bed. She is wearing an old tank top and rainbow-striped cotton underwear.
Her father has on his favorite Harley tee-shirt; his white hair sticks up in tufts as if he's just woken from a deep sleep. She tries to touch him, but she can't, he's like vapor, so she paces the room, yelling about how rude it is of him to thrust this upon her so suddenly, without warning. She can't possibly cry under these circumstances, he knows that, she says. What does he expect from her? Does he think now, just because he's dead, she'll go back? To that island shack in Galveston? That's what this little visit is all about. So she'll have to go back. To "take care of things," she says, making finger quotes in the air. Things you never bothered to take care of yourself.
Her father stares at her, his expression unsurprised and yet sad. Deflated.
Caroline rushes downstairs and begins opening kitchen cabinets, reaching for metal bowls and spatulas, spilling sugar and clanging utensils, a whole mess of things tumbling down onto the wooden countertop. She will make a meringue. She goes about it methodically, mixing the lemon curd, whipping the egg whites with the electric beater, rolling out the crust. When she is done, it will be hard and crispy on the outside and soft inside.
This takes an hour or so, the actual making of it, and she recites all the lyrics from Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, which is not a short album, and remembers how growing up she had to ask permission in order to listen to one of the records in her father's collection and how he slid the disk out of the jacket and dropped the black platter on the spool, only touching the record at its edges, and then tapped the needle over the top-he could have done it blind-while she sat in the rocking chair watching because she wasn't allowed to handle them-she might scratch or smudge something-but might be allowed to hold the liner notes and sing along.
By the time Caroline calms down, puts the meringue in the oven, and goes back to the bedroom, he's gone. She looks at the clock: two fifteen.
The Boston wind is bitter, and Caroline nestles her chin deep into the collar of her ankle-length leopard-print coat as she walks along the sidewalk clutching a bag of gourmet groceries to her chest. She didn't really need anything from the store, just needed some air after having spent the morning in bed cutting lines of cocaine and talking on the telephone to her oldest friend, now a car dealer in El Paso. Alice told her the dead usually become bored hanging out with the living and stop dropping by just when you decide you actually want them to stay.
Caroline feels horrible about how she treated her father, for leaving the room in a huff, yes, but for much more than that, for the last twenty years, too. She has been rehearsing apologies, composing combinations of the words love and sorry for when he returns tonight between the hours of one and two. She has even saved him a piece of the lemon meringue.
Caroline passes by the community garden with its withered and gnarled bits of vegetation peeking through a thin layer of snow; a few sunflower stalks stand rigid, their heads bowed, sucked dry as honeycombs. She imagines what the garden must look like in the summertime, tomatoes so big they burst open and ruin your white linen pants. But for all she knows, the people in this neighborhood don't even grow tomatoes. Maybe they have the luxury to plant arugula and tarragon.
The streets are lined with heaps of gray slush. Caroline picks up the cigarette butt she left on the stoop earlier, unlocks the door to the red-brick row house on Fort Hill. The area is what Caroline likes to call a mixed bag. The architecture is old but good; some of the places have been fixed up while others are crumbling and have heaters that won't go above fifty-five degrees. This is a long-term house-sitting gig for the owner of a Newbury Street salon, who has also made a pretty penny in real estate. The walls of his two-story apartment are decorated with elaborate etchings of male lovers, nude and entwined, drawings he claims come from a rare eighteenth-century underground book. The place is obviously accustomed to strangers; she settled in quickly, occasionally wakened in the night by moans and grunts slipping from the crystal-knobbed chest of drawers, but that was all. Every piece of furniture in the place is exquisite.
Caroline drops the cigarette butt into the toilet on her way to the kitchen and turns the radio on to NPR. A man is reading a poem inspired by Kafka.
One day, the man says, a cage went in search of a bird.
Caroline begins mixing sugar and flour and chocolate chips with a wooden spoon as the man continues reading about the cage and the ways in which it seduces the birds inside, and Caroline remembers an image from a book she had as a child of hundreds of doves in golden cages with the doors left flapping open, but none of the birds flying away; they are too afraid. Well, I am one bird, she thinks, beating the batter faster, who the cage will never hold.
After putting the cookies in the oven, Caroline sits down with her laptop at a table by the window, adjusting the lace curtains to avoid glare. She writes textbooks for a large publishing house and is currently working on the unit of a fourth-grade social studies book entitled "Communities of the World." She is interrupted by the sound of the telephone; her ring tone is the climax of the 1812 Overture. It's Kevin. He says he wants to see her again, tonight maybe, tomorrow night if that's better.
Look, she says. My father passed away last night. I just can't deal with dating anyone right now.
Oddly, this is a line Caroline has used before on men-her excessive capriciousness requiring that she always be armored with justifications-but this is the first time it is true.
She thinks of her date with Kevin the night before and of how, getting ready, she stripped off all her clothes, leaving them in a pile on the kitchen tile as she roamed around naked, drawing a bath and emptying expensive Parisian bath salts into the rising water. This particular apartment, with its red walls and mirrors on the ceiling, made her feel bawdy. Kevin was a blind date, someone from an online dating service, and as she bathed, she imagined he would be handsome, with a strong jawline and dimples. She imagined them sitting next to a fire sharing cheesecake. He would feed her and she would close her eyes.
She put on a black dress, emphasizing her narrow torso rather than her squareish hips, and long red beads that hung down to her belly button. She never wore lipstick, because her lips were too thin, but she spritzed a sticky coconut product onto her brown hair-which was the mute color of cinnamon-to quell the waves that were always more out of control in the winter on account of static or something. She shrugged into a white coat with a fur-lined hood, grabbing its matching muff.
At the restaurant, Caroline flagged down the waiter. Another lychee martini when you get a chance.
Kevin had taken her to an oyster bar and she was pleased, squeezing lemon and slurping them out of their shells. It was perhaps not the most demure food for a first date, but there was something visceral or even sexual about the way the oyster slid down her throat, about the rough grooves of the shell. It was her third martini and she felt good. Kevin had sandy brown hair, cut at his chin, and rosy skin like a doll. His voice was soft and low, and he smiled with only half his mouth as he told her things.
He was the youngest of six, all girls except for him. His mother had acquired a cat each time one of his sisters left the house, but she hated pets and so the cats had all slept in his bed, hemming him into the middle.
How awful, said Caroline.
It wasn't so bad. They kept me company.
No, how awful to have so many children. So many beady eyes looking at you, always asking for things, always asking you questions.
Kevin told her he was a kickboxing-instructor-slash-poet. Caroline had a hard time imagining him in front of a class of-most likely-all women jumping and shouting. Push it, ladies, push it harder. She laughed out loud at the thought, without saying why. She told him she preferred swimming laps at the YMCA. Sliding into the cold water was like entering a dream where shapes blurred and wavered; life slowed down and the water became a pulsating cushion between bodies, shielding them one from another. The pool was indoors; sound bounced off the tile walls, echoed and boomed, distorted by the water.
Kevin was from South Carolina. He wasn't used to the cold up here, he said. She told him, Just wait, it gets worse. After a storm, there are snowdrifts so tall and so long you can walk into them and never walk out again. There are icicles so sharp they can fall from overhangs and pierce your heart straight through. It happens all the time. Kevin seemed skeptical, but leaned in and gave her what must have been his "purposefully intense look." Every man had one. The poet in me finds you ravishing, he said.
I don't take compliments well, she told him, pointing to the tiramisu on the dessert tray.
Caroline asked about his poetry. He said he specialized in sestinas, did she know what a sestina was? She nodded, and thought about this word choice, to specialize, as if it were surgery, hearts versus brains, sestinas versus sonnets.
Are you familiar with the poem that begins like this: One day, the cage went in search of a bird?
I can't say I am, he said.
At the end of the night, they got in a cab together, and she invited him back to her place, but he declined. Whispered something about how he really liked her; he didn't want to rush things. Besides, he had to teach a class at seven in the morning across town.
That's too bad, she said.
He smiled, thinking she meant his early class. But really she meant all of it; it was all too bad. Because Caroline only went on first dates. He had missed his chance. She didn't invite them all back to her place, by any means, but the ones she did usually accepted. Maybe ninety percent of the time. Romance, she thinks, is like baked goods. It's too tempting to have around all the time, too hard to resist, and before you know it, you feel sick to your stomach, guilty and fat.
A week or so later, in the kitchen, Caroline takes another batch of cookies out of the oven. She pulls off large chunks with her fingers; they are almost too hot to eat. When she is finished, she tosses the rest of them into a bag, pours liquid bleach inside, and then throws it in the trashcan, which is black-painted metal with a rounded top and a silver flap, like a trashcan at a nice theatre. Phallic, she thinks.
As she finishes cleaning up her mess in the kitchen, Caroline hears the stomp stomp of snow boots on the stoop and the thud of several large packages hitting the door. She drags them inside and opens the first one by slicing through the packing tape with fingernail scissors. Her father's friends have obviously discovered her address scribbled down somewhere in the house-he was the only person she gave it out to-and since she refused to come to Texas, have started to send his things to her little by little in brown liquor boxes from the pantry. While her father did live a spare and austere lifestyle, she finds it disconcerting how easily his life is packed into a few boxes and sent across the country.
There are stacks of LPs, The 13th Floor Elevators and Cream and The Red Krayola. There are a few books, rare and expensive medical textbooks with beautiful and elaborate drawings of the intestines and the brain and the valves of the heart. These are things that remind her of home, of him and his characteristic obsessions, limited but deep.
Some of the boxes contain things she did not expect, didn't even know her father had kept; where in the world would he have kept them? High up in a closet somewhere? Beneath his bed? She doesn't know, but she knows this: they are her mother's things. Tropical sarongs and silk scarves and tubes of dried-out lipstick; it makes no sense. There is one box filled almost entirely with her mother's costume jewelry, which Caroline immediately dumps out onto the floor, squatting above the shiny pile of fake gold and fake stones, burying her hands up to the wrists and kneading with her fingers, as if she were mixing water and flour. As if it were a pile of dough.
It's true that when Caroline's mother left them-ran off with the Czech scientist, a visiting professor at the University, where she worked as Study Abroad Director-she didn't bother to take much with her. When the scientist came to pick her up in a cab, she carried only a cloth satchel, rushing down the sidewalk without looking back. Her father stayed inside pounding on the glass of the front picture window, over and over for what seemed like minutes, as if he were trying to fix the television, to change the godawful picture in front of his eyes. Caroline was ten at the time, and she felt little sympathy for her father; it was the first time he had failed to protect her from pain. She was sent to Houston for a week to stay with an aunt she'd never met, and when she returned, when she was dropped off by a Buick Riviera that didn't even come to a complete stop, the house had been stripped of everything even remotely connected to her mother. They never heard from her again. No postcard, no forwarding address. Like a black hole, her existence was only decipherable from the brutal outline of its absence.
Caroline sifts through the jewelry she hasn't seen in over two decades and tries to imagine her father that week, alone in the house with all of her mother's things. Caroline has always assumed he spent those days on a tear, piling her clothes, her letters, her sewing machine, her barbells into heaps on the lawn, dousing them with gasoline, torching them, or maybe throwing everything onto his motorcycle and driving fast down Highway 10, spilling things into air and road. Leaving her in his wake.
But now, seeing these boxes in front of her, she realizes it wasn't like that at all, that he actually spent the painful hours of those six days meticulously sorting and packing away her things, by type and color. Finding inconspicuous places to hide them, places where Caroline would never look. In a way, she thinks, it makes sense. It was for the love of her mother that he'd left his rock 'n' roll life in the first place; he used to say she made feeding a woman nectarines seem like the most pressing, urgent thing in the world. Caroline's mother had turned him into a science librarian, into a man who did his half of the laundry, canned pickled jalape�os, tickled his daughter until she cried. And when she left him, the old self-the bar fighter, the life of the party-was too long gone for him to ever recover it. And so he did what any decent librarian would do; he packed and catalogued her things for posterity.
Inside one of the boxes is a large manila envelope with "Caroline Catter" written on the front in her father's handwriting. Her father, after giving up his music career and becoming a science librarian, still moonlighted as a Buddy Holly scholar, writing reviews of books and entries in specialized encyclopedias, and was always sending them to her to edit. Tearing open the flap, Caroline figures that it is another article or review he had been meaning but hadn't gotten a chance to send. She can't bear to look at it right away, so she tosses the typed pages upstairs; she will ask him about it when he visits her tonight.
Her father never really bothered Caroline about her own life, about being over thirty and single; he just assumed she was living in New England to sow her wild oats-women needed to do that these days now too, he said-and would return to the steam and stink of the Gulf Coast when she was ready to settle down. That's what he'd done.
Caroline spends the rest of the day working distractedly on her own projects, finishing the section on Mt. Limo and sending it off to her editors, making notes on her next assignments: Mongolian monarchies, the island of Chilo�, discovery of the Blue Hole. She sorts the various chapter instructions into piles on the wooden floor. She lies down next to them, looking up at the crown molding along the ceiling and imagining what her father would look like on his motorcycle speeding down a highway in the Andes.
That night, like the previous nights, she makes hot cocoa with marshmallows for her father, arranges the mug along with a piece of pie on a silver tray she found in one of the cupboards. Sitting on the pristine white couch in her flannel pajamas, she watches headlights crawl across the wall. But also like the previous nights, he doesn't come. Caroline waits and waits, her knees tucked under her chin, and thinks about being an only child before her mother left, how the three of them had perfected a dance that was both companionable and private, a way of sliding past each other like water, of being present without edges. Like swimming in the pool at the YMCA.
At about two-thirty, she finally climbs into bed, but she can't sleep, so she grabs her father's manuscript and begins to flip through the pages. It is not a review or an encyclopedia entry or an article, not even a letter to the editor complaining about some mistake in a discography. It appears to be a patent application.
Description of Prior Art: The conceptual precedent for this invention is geological in nature. A rock sits for hundreds of years at the entrance to a grotto on the beach, surrounded by dozens of other stones in undulating piles that spill out to the cove. Once in the morning and once in the evening, sunlight heats the rock as the sun makes its passage overhead; around noon and around midnight, depending on the time of year, the tide comes in and water laps at the rock, polishing its exterior to a glassy sheen. A human walking down this beach one afternoon, stopping at the grotto and picking up the rock, might put it in the pocket of his tweed jacket, for a gift maybe, a paperweight. Even if this rock is abandoned for decades on a corporate desk in a high-rise office building somewhere, its origins seemingly forgotten, it will continue to hold the residue of its past within it, unrecognizable to the naked eye but there nonetheless. The mineral content of its surface layer will have been irrevocably altered by the precise number of minutes spent in the Mediterranean sun, the minutes spent beneath tiny salt-water waves; it is encased in a map of its own existence, encoded by everything that has ever happened to it, even the cool darkness of a tweed jacket. In a sense, the rock lives its present life and its past life simultaneously and forever.
Just as environmental changes are encoded in geological material, all of space is imprinted by the residue of what has transpired there; it is filled with the accretion of spirit matter.
Summary of Invention: This invention provides a previously-unrealized means of detecting such matter. It consists primarily of a web coated in neurons extracted from the luminescent skin of a species of jellyfish commonly called the Mermaid's Purse. The novel receptacle contains a plurality of monofilaments in transverse cross sections connected to a radial stay member. When the web is spread over a particular site, the doorway of a room for example, the monofilaments begin to capture, to reflect and refract, deposits of the lives previously lived there: faces frozen into smiles or leers, awkward silences, screams of recognition, the brush of a lover's cheek, the arched back of a Siamese, hands turning doorknobs, goodbye, hello, goodbye. It is a web; it is a window into time itself.
Caroline falls asleep filled with images of her father and his web-did he actually try to build such a crazy thing?-and then just images of webs, cages and webs.
The alarm clock in this apartment is unusual. It is a Zen contraption that wakes you gradually, a deep gong sound that begins almost imperceptibly, slow at first, becoming faster and louder, rising to a fullness that echoes in your bones. Caroline likes it, though not as much as the alarm in a North End apartment that chirped as if morning birds were chatting on the windowsill.
She goes downstairs wearing the owner's silk kimono, which is too long for her and drags along the floor like a train, her eyes puffy and red from crying in her sleep, which is the only time she does cry. She makes what she likes to call cinnamon biscuits-biscuit dough and cinnamon and walnuts swirled into a pinwheel-as she brews loose-leaf tea she finds in the pantry; it claims to rejuvenate the spirit as well as promote good digestion.
It is a very busy time in her line of work; two of the big-money states, Texas and California, are adopting new science textbooks next spring, so Caroline is in a telephone conference with the editors and assistants in her department at the moment her heart stops. They are discussing the pictures, arguing over which animal to use for the photograph demonstrating fur as one type of animal covering. There is a heated debate going on between those who are pro-otter and those who prefer the koala bear, the only rule being this: the animal must be cute.
Otters are fucking adorable, says Rick, and they're not totally played out like the koala. Every kid already goes through a koala phase.
Caroline's heart begins palpitating wildly; she begins to sweat and shake and feel muscle weakness. And then her pulse seems to evaporate, like when they turn off the waves in the wave pool at the water park, but the stillness isn't calm at all. It embodies the word lack.
Guys, I think I'm going to be sick.
She takes a taxi to the emergency room. As she sits in the backseat, everything around her is moving in slow motion, the numbers on the meter not appearing to change or roll over; the window is a time-lapse video of gray-suited people in mid-air, mid-step, their expensively-cut hair blowing up and to the side, but never falling back down again. And then, abruptly, as if a dam has been broken, her heart starts beating again with a whoosh that sweeps through her entire body. She grips the vinyl seat to keep from vomiting.
When the doctor comes in to see her after they've done a few tests, she's sitting on the examining table, cold air coming in through the gaps of the paper gown.
How much cocaine do you do a week?
Oh, shit. Is that all this is?
We're going to do another round of tests.
She tells the doctor about her father, about his death, about his appearance in her bedroom and disappearance since. The doctor sits on a swivel stool, scribbling notes. She thinks he's cute, likes the way his pleats fall on his hipbones, and considers asking him out.
There are several possibilities, he says, and, in your case, only time will tell. Has she been under a lot of stress? How is her diet?
She says she hasn't been feeling right since her father died. The doctor says that occasionally the deceased are known to do this sort of thing, to interfere in the world, to have a hard time letting go. This stunt with her heart might have been revenge, his way of giving her a small taste of what it feels like to die. He tells her not to worry about it too much; he tells her these things blow over.
And what else?
What do you mean, what else?
You said there were several possibilities.
Yes. The cocaine. You should probably stop using cocaine.
As she rides the Orange Line home, she thinks of when she was writing an elementary-school health textbook and house-sitting on Beacon Hill, high on coke, typing on her laptop while sitting Indian-style in the middle of a bed full of crumbs, not having bathed in days, violating at least six of the ten guidelines for good health she was so eloquently putting onto the page.
The subway jerks forward and back. Caroline wonders if there is any truth to the doctor's theory that her father might have caused this thing with her heart. Her father was passive-aggressive. When he would forbid her to go to a friend's house on a school night, for instance, and she argued, the telephone gripped in her hand, his face would eventually turn hard and he would say Fine. Do whatever the hell you want. He was so cold she could never make herself take advantage of the literal meaning of his words, and would instead stay in her room for the rest of the night, the door shut to him.
Reaching for the lip gloss in the pocket of her fox-fur coat-the only one of her fur coats she wears regularly because it is the only one that looks as if it might be fake-she remembers how her first and only live-in boyfriend, eight years ago, had been like that. He never yelled when he was angry, just shook his head in frustration and turned stiff. After a few months, all they ever did when they came home was watch television, rent movies and watch television, because it somehow felt as if they should be spending time together rather than working on their own things in separate corners of the house. But they had nothing to say to each other. They sat there on the couch in pools of despair and terror at having nothing whatsoever to say. Caroline had decided to write for children because she wanted to show them how many different worlds were possible. Some worlds were cages and others anything but.
Days continue to pass and, although Caroline waits up every night in her pajamas, pacing the floor of the apartment wearing the owner's slippers, which are embroidered with Chinese dragons, or quietly curled up in a ball on one of the couches, her father does not return. Slices of the food she bakes, peanut-butter pie and angel food cake, remain stacked on little silver trays in the corner where he stood that first night. The desserts are untouched, growing stale and hard as stone.
More packages have arrived, and Caroline has opened them and spread out her parents' things all over the apartment: shawls draped on lamps, cowboy boots stacked on the television, a toolbox on the back of the commode, jewelry piled on the coffee table. She puts on her mother's clothes-like a child playing dress-up except that most of the clothes fit tight-Wrangler jeans and halter tops and peasant blouses that fall over the shoulder.
The day she left, Caroline's mother didn't ever say goodbye to her exactly-when Caroline came home that afternoon, her parents were screaming at each other, oblivious-but, earlier in the day, she did say something: Never learn to bake. She had been packing Caroline's lunch before school, a piece of spinach quiche and half an apple in a Wonder Woman lunchbox, and Caroline had asked about it, had wanted to know how the quiche was made. Why it was so green. Her mother had crouched down, looking Caroline in the eye (and later, Caroline would think she should have known what was going to happen because it was the look you gave your equal, not your child) and grabbing her too tightly by the shoulders. She said, Don't ever learn to bake. For a woman, domesticity is a cage in search of a bird. Remember that.
Afterward, when it was just her and her father, Caroline checked and rechecked out The Joy of Cooking from the public library, poring over it after school, making all kinds of things-white-chocolate brownies and banana bread and thumbprint cookies-and throwing them away before her father got home from work. When he asked her to help him with dinner, with stir-frying sweet peas or grilling hamburgers, she would sigh loudly and burn everything, shrugging her shoulders when he got angry. And when he cut himself shaving and asked her to put a bandage on it, she would roll her eyes, standing on the toilet lid for height, and slap the band-aid on roughly, crookedly. She resented anything she was asked to do for him; she only felt as if things were more or less right when he left work to drop off the gym clothes she'd forgotten or when he took them out for snow cones on her birthday. But he was the one who'd stayed. Why hadn't she understood the importance of that then? He was the one who stayed.
Caroline knows some people would criticize the existence she's chosen as an adult as a shallow one, containing only an illusion of fullness. But she disagrees. Caroline collects moments. By changing locations-two or three times a year, at least-and lovers-she's lost count-with such frequency, Caroline thinks she has found a way to differentiate between the months and years, to keep time from blending together. But the hardest part is holding on to it all as it builds up, not letting things drop and fall through her fingers; she wants everything contained, like a photo album you can grip in your hands all at once.
One day, a woman calls her about a potential house-sitting opportunity on the Cape; it's for a condo merely blocks from the rocky ocean surf. Caroline loves the shore in winter, the incongruous combination of a snow-covered beach. The woman tells her, There's not much going on out there this time of year. This is a job for someone who likes to be alone. And Caroline says, I'll think about it. I'll think about it and give you a call back tomorrow. Caroline was born on the coast, after all. This coast is not the same coast she grew up on but, in a way, all coasts are the same, places where land and water spend their days rubbing the edges off one another, soothing themselves through the ritual of repeated motion.
Later in the evening, when dusk has turned the apartment walls purple, when she has finished working and eating leftover pasta while listening to the radio, Caroline goes back into the living room, stands over the pile of costume jewelry. The pieces look dull, flaccid and tangled together. She scoops a strand of glass beads, earrings made out of amber, a mother-of-pearl choker, metal bangles, a kukui-seed necklace into the stretched-out bottom of her tee-shirt and takes them upstairs to the corner where her father stood to the corner where pieces of cake sit in a row and begins stringing up the jewelry hooking pieces together and taping them to the ceiling and walls and she runs up and down the stairs to fetch more strands of lapis crystal malachite it takes her hours to tie them up and to attach the chains and clasps in transverse cross sections like the most frenetic spider she drapes monofilaments glistening with beads liquid drops of color periwinkle burnt sienna mint magenta goldenrod chartreuse lavender turquoise crimson onto her web of silver and brass she labors all night it is almost too beautiful. It is almost too much to bear.
Mary Helen Specht, born in Abilene, Texas, is currently writing in Nigeria on a Fulbright grant. She has work published or forthcoming in Michigan Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, and The Florida Review.