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O My Darling
By Amity Gaige
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2013 Amity Gaige
All rights reserved.
"Tell me," she said.
"No," he said.
"Come on," she was laughing. "Just tell me what it is."
"No," he said. "You have to guess."
"Guess? Guess?" She had both hands on her head. "I hate guessing. You know that. Just give it to me."
"I want you to guess," Clark said evenly, holding the gift behind his back. The young couple, Clark and Charlotte Adair, stood in the middle of their kitchen, which they had yesterday painted yellow. Everything was still in boxes all around the house, for they had just moved in.
Although he spoke casually enough, Clark was weak with excitement—today was a birthday. Today was a day to honor childhood, which he remembered as something like a galaxy of sweets and coincidences. This was a day to feel as precious and doted upon as one tended to feel as a child, as precious and doted upon as he had felt at least, and to forget altogether that one was grown up. Birthdays. He remembered the body heat of his parents behind him as he beckoned the party guests in from the rain. Though Clark was not yet thirty, he would be soon, and what struck him about adulthood so far was the sheer quantity of issues that arose of their own accord, no matter how pleasantly you behaved. Too many issues to name. Today was a birthday. A day to put all that aside.
"OK," Charlotte said, shrugging. She took two steps backward and looked at her husband, finger in mouth. Suddenly she seemed happy to comply.
"Flowers," she said.
"Nope," said Clark, aware of an immediate look of relief on her face. "Flowers are for normal days. Today is your birthday."
"Well, what did you get me?" She was blushing. The sight of her pale face with blooming cheeks transfixed him. They were both very tall and lean, like two halves of the same thing. But where Charlotte was fair, Clark's coloring bore the trace of shadows, with his dark curls and a faintly Arabian nose. Charlotte drew her sucked-pink finger from her mouth.
"Why are you smiling?" she said.
"God damn," he said, almost involuntarily. "You look beautiful. Beautiful like a child. It's amazing. You look like you're about seven. And you've just come in from playing outside."
"I'd never want to be seven again," said Charlotte.
"No-no," Clark said, quickly. "Seven in spirit."
"I'd never want to be seven again," said Charlotte, "especially in spirit."
"Well, what I meant was," Clark shifted the present behind his back, "you look happy. I like to see you happy."
Charlotte lowered her gaze to Clark's navel. Her face grew serious. With one finger, she drew a tendril of lank blonde hair out of her eyes. She appeared to be trying to see the birthday present through his body.
She looked up. "I hope you didn't get me something too extravagant," she said. "I said no extravagance this year. With the new house ..."
Clark's extravagance with money was sometimes an issue, but for him to bring up her bringing it up would have been a whole new, collateral issue. Today was a birthday. (Charlotte's birthday, though did it matter whose in a marriage?) A day to remember the hunger one felt as a child for each new thing, each singular word, and each honest daybreak. He fondled the gift box behind his back.
"It's not extravagant," he said.
"OK," she said, looking up at the ceiling. "It's not flowers, and it's not extravagant."
What is it, Charlotte Adair thought, out of all things? A gift. A birthday gift. Suddenly, she found herself believing that inside this small box was one of the fantastical gifts on some long ago wish list—a harp, a pony, a castle. The thought made her giddy. She felt that she was at the center of everything. She was the birthday girl. The gift was for her. She closed her eyes and felt the rupturing pressure of laughter in her chest. But just then, her eyes snapped open. She was afraid to stand there with her eyes closed, like a child praying to God. She looked around suspiciously at the strange new kitchen. Then she looked at her husband's shadowed face—almond colored, pretty-eyed. What if for some reason he was pulling her leg?
"Let me see it," she said.
"No way," laughed Clark. "You'll guess right away if you see it."
She stepped back. She took a deep breath. Of course he wasn't pulling her leg. He liked giving presents. He liked birthdays.
"Is it ...," she said, "another figurine?"
Clark fondled the gift again. It was not a figurine, because the figurine had definitely been an issue last year. He agreed now that the figurine had been a strange gift, something suited better for a child. But it had looked so much like her, he still wanted to protest, a porcelain maiden wringing out her long, long hair.
"Nope," he said. "It's absolutely not a figurine."
"Hey," Charlotte said, looking up at him flirtatiously. "Did you get me that necklace I saw at Shand's the other day? Did you sneak back over there and buy that necklace for me?"
It took Clark a moment to remember the necklace they had seen together.
"No," he said. "Listen, I didn't get you jewelry."
"OK," said Charlotte. "Then can I have it now?"
"Come on," said Clark. "Use your imagination."
But as soon as he said the word "imagination" he knew he had chosen the wrong word. Since they'd begun moving in, Charlotte's lack of imagination had become an issue. She would stare at the empty rooms, blinking, unable to envision. Clark felt that she was unable to let go of the expected places and uses for things. She was unable to dream, unable to guess. The week previous, he had gone so far as to call her "boring," and to prove that she was not boring, she took everything back out of the kitchen cabinets and dashed them against the wall. Among other things, such as all of his mother's china, she had broken the birthday figurine, and in that case, thought Clark, the figurine wasn't such a hot thing for her to bring up either.
Charlotte's eyes darkened. She too remembered the incident with the china. She saw the white plates flying like epithets toward the wall. Although they'd had their tussles, they had never fought like that, never thrown anything, and now their first house was anointed in a shower of porcelain. She felt very bad about it and also implicitly reaccused. She took a deep breath. She tried to remember that today was her birthday, a day to claim one's place at the center of everything before one has to step aside for the next of six billion people, a day to feel cosmically attractive, a day to feel wanted, and she tried to get back to that dreamy, closed-eyed feeling of the birthday girl.
But instead she said, helpless to stop herself, "Is it a rope to hang myself with?"
Suddenly, the issues abounded: Charlotte's rather dark sense of humor, her inability to behave sportingly, and more disastrously, the horribly recent death of Clark's mother, which had been a suicide.
Charlotte's eyes flew open when she realized what she had said.
"Just kidding," she said. "Oh God. It was a joke. I wasn't thinking. It was an innocent joke."
Clark still held the birthday gift behind his back. His eyes flickered momentarily, but his expression did not change.
"Are you going to guess for real or not?" he asked.
Charlotte looked down. Softly she said, "I guessed for real already, Clark."
"Just twice? That's all the guesses you've got in you?"
"Can't I just have it?" said Charlotte.
"But this is the best part," he said, "the guessing. Listen," the gift box—covered sloppily in striped wrapping paper—hung now at his side. "You don't enjoy your birthday, Charlotte. You always get sad on your birthday. I thought I'd try to make it fun this year."
They both stood silently for a moment. It was true, about Charlotte and birthdays. She was trying very hard to be the birthday girl but she couldn't stick with it. Outside, the dog gave one of his long, heartbroken howls. They could hear him dragging his chain back and forth across the patio. Clark looked at the floor and Charlotte looked out the window. Outside, the hawthorn tree shook its angry naked branches.
"February," Charlotte sighed. "Why did I have to be born in the sorriest month of the year?"
"See?" said Clark, "There you go, getting sad."
"A lot of times, with adopted children, they just make up the birthday. I mean, sometimes they don't know. So maybe I wasn't even born today. I've never seen my birth certificate. They might have just fudged the papers at the agency. Maybe I was filling their February quota."
"That's it," Clark gestured with his shoulder. "The gift is related to the time of year. Understand? You're getting warm."
"A raincoat?" Charlotte squinted.
"No," said Clark, putting the box behind his back again. It was then he realized that a raincoat was what he should have gotten. A raincoat would have been a lot better than the stupid thing he had gotten. His arms hurt, holding the gift on and on this way. And yet it seemed too late to just give it to her.
"Ohhh," she said. "I know."
A smile arose on Charlotte's face, and for a moment, Clark felt very badly. She guessed that the gift was two tickets to go see the ballet Giselle that was being performed in a nearby city, something she had hinted at wanting several times but which was wrong. Then, undeterred, she guessed a scarf, then an umbrella, both of which were wrong but were, in fact, related to the time of year. She guessed a number of reasonable things, and Clark noticed that each one would have made a better gift than the stupid gift he'd gotten and that all of them were wrong. He had thought long and hard about what present to buy his wife this year, and yet none of those reasonable things had come to mind. He listened, looking at the kitchen walls, which still smelled fresh and wet with paint, his arms aching.
A rabbit bounced out of the hedge into the backyard. Charlotte looked at it.
"Did you get me a rabbit?" she said.
Then she began to guess whatever came to mind and at that point Clark did not stop her: a meat grinder, an egg beater, an anteater, a cheeseburger, a sheepherder, a rectal thermometer, a flower for Algernon, a purple heart, a dark horse, a bird in the hand, a burning bush, a kind word, a million-dollar idea, a guardian angel, immortal life.
"Oh Christ," she said, and began to cry.
Clark went to the pantry and put the gift box on the topmost shelf. They had forgotten to paint the pantry. He looked at the decrepit wallpaper.
"I'll give it to you later," he said aloud in the pantry.
Charlotte sat down at the breakfast table and Clark sat down beside her. He passed her a tissue. They were silent for some time.
"We've been fighting since the day we moved into this house," said Charlotte. "We never used to fight."
"Well, let's not fight anymore then," said Clark. "It's the stress."
"There's been a lot of stress. The funeral. Going through old things. Moving in, all at the same time."
"Packing, unpacking. Painting."
"Breaking plates. So much to do." Charlotte smiled shyly, then she started to cry again.
"Don't cry," Clark said tenderly, grasping her hand.
"Why not?" she said.
"I don't know," he said. "I guess you can go ahead and have a cry."
"A birthday cry," said Charlotte, smiling a little.
"Sure," said Clark. "A birthday cry. You save up enough of those things and someday you'll have yourself a birthday river."
"My own river," said Charlotte.
Clark played with the napkin holder they had just unpacked. He lifted the small bar up and down. He pretended to guillotine the screaming napkins until he finally got her to laugh.
"Well, Charlie," said Clark. "Let me tell you. You certainly used your imagination."
Charlotte laughed again, drying her tears with a napkin. Then they looked out the window together, where the damp winds of February blew like an army of witches over the small yard.
She was gone now. But way back, when Clark was a boy, his mother had explained the world. She explained how things functioned, the secrets of things. For example, the passage of time (according to Vera Adair) was overseen by a dwarf who lived in a shack in the desert somewhere outside of Las Vegas. At night, he would hoist the moon up by a rope and pulley. In the morning, of course, he would raise the sun. And the weather? The weather was operated by a series of magical animals that lived in the mountains.
These were stories for children but she did not stop telling them. Even after Clark grew up and realized that his mother had invented everything, that little of what she said was true, even after they told him she was unwell, even after she ended her own life to drive the point home, Clark still thought of the weather in exactly the same way. When it snowed, he thought of the black bear of winter standing on a cliff, tossing the snow out of his satchel. At least once, at the start of every spring, he pictured the little lamb of spring gamboling down from the mountains to deliver the rosebuds.
It was not that Clark still believed these stories were true, he merely appreciated their familiarity. He knew he was the son of a madwoman. The years before her death were the worst. Like his father and sister, he did not cry at her funeral. And now all of them were behaving as if her death were far more than three months distant. But in secret, in some sort of inviolable compact, Clark held onto her crazy and wonderful stories, much in the same way that aging ladies held onto their handsome dead fiancés of distant wars. Even now, as the morning was breaking pinkly over his first March in his first house, paying out the light, there was this sense of magic, of tremendous unpredictability, at which his mother's stories had once hinted. He missed her. Of course he did. Also, he was relieved.
The wind fell still over the house, and the winter-naked trees rattled outside the bedroom window. I'll have to take a look at that window, Clark thought to himself. The thought made him proud: He would have to take a look at the window. Who else but him, the man of the house? Clark inhaled and smiled. He raised himself on the pillow, and looked down into his wife's face.
"Have you ever been in love?" he asked her.
Charlotte grinned sleepily. She drew her forearm across her brow. Her long hair, which was the color of sugar corn and without the slightest curl, crisscrossed the pillow. She had a small mouth and a sudden, snaggle-toothed smile. He could see the tiny ridges at the bottoms of her teeth.
"I mean," said Clark, "besides with me."
"Who says I'm in love with you?" said Charlotte.
"I don't know. Are you?"
"I'm not that kind of girl."
Clark tickled her just under the arm, and she squirmed. "Really?"
"I'm asleep," she said. "I'm asleep. Shall I hang a sign from my nose?"
"What about that guy who went into the military? The one who proposed to you at a Drive-Thru. Private Downyourpants."
"Who, him?" said Charlotte, rolling her eyes. "No, we weren't in love. We just happened to be running from love in the same direction."
Clark smiled. Because it was his first spring-like morning in their new house, and because his pretty young wife had teased him and was warm beside him on the bed, and because he was surviving all that had happened, it felt like the first smile of his life. Everything was wide open. Everything was first. Spring was the most hopeful season, and soon the grounds around the new house would bloom, who knew what buried flowers there were, and maybe Charlotte could finally have a garden. He was proud to own this house. He felt sure that a garden would arise immaculately out of the ground around it. He felt hopeful and young like that.
Marriage, he thought, touching his wife's hair. Marriage, what is it? Why does a person do it? Why does a person grab a girl by the shoulder as she is walking, one summer evening, turn her around and ask her to marry him? Maybe it's simply the most outrageous thing a man can do. A man can jump from buildings, a man can wrestle bulls, but inwardly he will know none of it can compare to swinging a girl round and asking her to marry him. It was irrepressible. It was outrageous. Marriage is the only punishment great enough to fit the crime of love. Clark laughed to himself, fingering Charlotte's hair. Marriage is the only punishment great enough to fit the crime of love, he thought. But of course, marriage didn't even feel like a punishment. Three years into it, it no longer even felt outrageous. Only on certain mornings, waking up next to her, did he realize what an adventure it was. A billion times it had happened before them, and yet here they were, the first.
Excerpted from O My Darling by Amity Gaige. Copyright © 2013 Amity Gaige. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
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