AGGIE 1955 by Arlene Greene

Aggie tried to go to sleep but her mind raced with turbulent thoughts. At 3:00 a.m. she gave up and got out of bed. She would file for divorce in the morning. Sarah made the appointment with the Legal Aid office, and would go with her for moral support. It had to be done, Sarah said. "Abandonment--" Sarah said, "that's what you tell them, and if you can't then I sure as hell will." And then what would she do? How would it make anything different? And what would Sam think when he found out? What difference should that make? Where the hell was he? Why hadn't he come back or sent money or written or called? She'd had a phone for six months now, and her number was in the book under her name and he'd never even called.

When Sam was at home they didn't have much to do with each other outside of arguing over money, and the sex of course, there was always the sex, but she missed him more than she'd ever thought possible. The only thing that wasn't clear was just what it was she missed. It wasn't the sex, it really wasn't. The only part of sex she liked was the holding. The rest of it she sometimes tolerated and sometimes enjoyed, and then it was over, and then there was more holding, but it wasn't even that. The holding was something she was grateful for when it happened, but she never longed for it from Sam. It wasn't that much different from hugging the kids, or even hugging herself, so she was sure it wasn't that. She remembered how it felt when Sam's brother Steve held her, and how different his arms were from Sam's. Steve was the only other man she'd been held by, and Steve's arms created a different kind of comfort, one that awoke and spread a rich and delicious fire through her body, a fire she never forgot and never felt since. She could feel the heat climbing from the memory alone and felt ashamed. She'd never really liked it, had she? She had -- she had; she remembered she had. It was hard to believe now, and it most certainly had not mattered when she switched from Steve to Sam. And yet she wondered if it was supposed to be like it had been with Steve. She'd never felt a need for sex except with him, and hadn't even thought about it for years. She reached under the covers and cupped her breasts with both hands, felt her nipples harden and a warmth spread through her body, then felt suddenly as if someone was watching her, yanked her hands up out of the covers, shook her head as if she couldn't believe what she was doing, and turned over on her side, tightening her legs together and drawing her knees close to her chest.

It wasn't the arguing she missed, that's for sure. As much as part of their life as the arguing was, as natural as it had become, it still left her exhausted and feeling beaten down. No, it wasn't the arguing. She tried to think what it was and all she could think was that it was just Sam's being in the house. His physical presence. If he were here right now she'd probably be aggravated as hell with him and tell him to go on in the other room and leave her alone, but then he'd be in the other room. And she'd know where he was, and she could call him if she wanted to and she could get mad at him if she wanted to, and he would be there, be there, be there.

What she needed was a bit of color amid the grayness. Life-giving, breath-giving, space-giving airy color. She felt as if she were suffocating. She got up out of bed and walked through the darkened and silent apartment to the front windows and sat looking out at the deserted street. The sky was black, with no trace of moon or stars. The streetlights cast a grayish yellow pall on the concrete and small patches of grass/dirt that served as front yards. She looked up into what little skyline she could see between the buildings and tried to differentiate the slowly changing shades of night. Ever since she could remember she was able to see night falling and deepening; really see it as it was happening, and although she'd tried to get others to see it they never could. The dark came on sluggishly and reluctantly, in barely discernable waves of ever so slightly darkening hues, and she had to sit very still and concentrate very hard to really be able to catch it happening. Once she became conscious of it her entire body felt focused, calm, and warm, as if the night was blanketing and enveloping her with a protective cloak that shut out all else. The sense of comfort was intense as if she’d placed herself in step with the universe.

Aggie was born with a caul over her face. A thin, gray membrane, that once removed, left behind a sixth sense, a second sight. She saw and knew things others could not. Things that were there, really there, and sometimes people would believe her and sometimes they wouldn't. She also knew when people were lying to her. Could see the truth beyond their words, although most of the time she never called them on it. More times than not she wanted to believe the lie more than she wanted to believe what she knew, and so it was easier to just ignore the truth and believe what was before her in the bright light of day. Especially with Sam and with Sarah, and with Gus for that matter. She'd beaten down what she knew to be the truth in deference to their version of the truth so many times she didn't even have to try anymore. Her second sense tucked its tail between its legs and curled up in a corner whenever others voiced their disagreement with her. She simply always gave in, or up, and acquiesced to what they said was right. To keep peace, to stop the yelling, to simply save the little energy she had. She thought of the old saying about how if you beat a dog enough times, you don't have to beat it anymore; it will retreat on its own, without any coaxing at all. And yet Aggie was never physically beat. What beat her down was her fear of perhaps being wrong after all, and for the other person to be happy again. She never saw the payoff in standing up for her opinion.

As she looked out of the window she wished it was twilight so she could look for the night falling. The air was still and the hue remained the same black/blue/gray without lightening or darkening. A numbness washed over her and she sighed heavily—there was no use in looking at the sky for comfort tonight. It suddenly seemed as if the sky, the apartment, her life were paralyzed and stuck in time, and to shake the feeling she got up quickly and made her way to the kitchen. She heated up the coffee left over from morning and looked around the cramped yellow kitchen as if she'd never seen the place before. Nothing that belonged to her seemed permanent. Her "stuff", as Sarah called it, contrasted sharply with Sarah's "things". Her stuff had no history and no future. Her stuff was all basic and necessary, and the objects were as subject to change as the stages the kids went through. Not one design on a dish even faintly resembled the design on any of the other dishes. There was not a matching fork or spoon or bowl in the lot. The kids had broken all the glassware, and she'd replaced it when she could, but they'd break it all again until she gave up and bought tin cups and the cheap little plastic glasses, and even at that nothing matched. The kids took them outside and never brought them back. They had separate storage areas for their kitchen things and two dishracks to hold them after they were washed; Sarah insisted on not getting her things "mixed in to the general chaos". Aggie looked over at her own drain board, where the dishes from the night's meal were air drying. In six months time there would be a completely different mismatched set; she could not even count on consistency in that. Her mother's kitchen things remained the same from as far back as Aggie could remember to the present day. There was not a piece of plastic to be found. Everything had substance, was good, sturdy, lasting, worth keeping. Dishes were made of hard, cool china or ceramic that had been formed by hand and fired in ovens, had bowls and butter dishes and mugs that matched, and when you lifted one of those mugs to your mouth and drank from it your coffee or hot cocoa or chamomile tea, you could feel not only its weight, but its permanence, its solidity, knew it had been around for a long time and would continue to be around for a long time to come. Aggie lifted her cup, drained it of the last sip of coffee and stared at the brown stained plastic inside. The cup was blue, and she'd used every soap and scrubber she knew how to use and still the brown stain remained. It mocked her when she had lady friends over, so that she would have to explain to them that the cup wasn't really dirty, that it was only a stain, and that she'd done everything she could to get it out, but you know how plastic is. Friends would nod and smile and put the cup down. She ran her hand over the oilcloth that covered the table and noticed for the first time all the slits and holes in it from where the kids had sliced things or cut sandwiches, and how the brown stains spread out from the slits and holes in feathery circles from Kool-Aid and milk and coffee spills that never got wiped up or got wiped up too late. She frowned and wondered how she'd never noticed it before, wondered why suddenly everything looked so shabby and temporary and worthless. In six months time the oilcloth too would be replaced, if she could fit the cost in, and in six months time Sam might come back and how could she tell him that it felt as if he too had only been a temporary thing in her life like everything else? She got up and poured another cup of coffee, wondering why she was doing so, for it would keep her up for sure, and then she started to dip into the sugar bowl but hesitated, spoon poised in mid-air. She thought about Sarah's recent comments on her appearance, and became suddenly aware of all the extra weight she'd put on with each baby and never managed to take off, and suddenly the weight no longer felt like mothercushion / womansoft but like fat, and when the word "fat" took root in her consciousness and sunk in, her eyes stung sharply and watered as if she'd been smacked hard in the face. Her weight had never bothered her, not ever. Sam used to tease about how he could barely get his arms around her, but he teased with a certain sense of pride, it was he who called her body "womansoft", and made her feel she was more of a woman because there was so much of her. When they made love he'd exclaim over how many handfuls of her there were and the bigger she got, the more aroused he seemed. And the "mothercushion"? Aggie couldn't imagine how skinny mothers must feel to a child, being held by knobby tendrils and hugged up against grating bones. What would the kids burrow into when they needed soothing if it she didn't have ample soft breasts and an abundant stomach? How could she wring mops and knead dough without arms like sturdy sausages? But none of these things seemed to matter at this moment, and she thought about what she looked like when she and Sam first met. Not that she was ever rail thin. But she did fit nicely into size sixteens, and even had a waistline and firm, if a bit too thick, thighs. She remembered feeling substantial, solid, anchored. The last housedress she bought was size 24, and now even that was pulling a bit under the arms and around the middle. She had just a ledge of lap, just big enough for a child to sit on, and the rest of it was filled by her stomach. She wrapped both arms around in front in her and patted herself gently. Even she was not permanent, even she had changed, become something else, had begun as one thing and ended up as another, and would become something else again in six months time.

A blanket-muffled whimper came from the bedroom off the kitchen, and Aggie jumped. She leaned forward, grabbing hold of the table to lift herself from the chair and was halfway up when she slumped back down, remembering that Marion was in the hospital, realizing the whimper was only from Annie stirring in her sleep, that it was only a normal, dream-sigh whimper and not one that meant terror in the night, not one of those unspeakable cries that woke her when Marion was having a bad time of it. Aggie did not understand how such a weak and frail child had ever come from her and Sam. They were both so solid, so strong. Marion was born fragile, was delicate and frail long before the rheumatic fever ravaged her body and left her heart enlarged in size and sapped of what little strength it had. Her skin was milky white, thin, and tinged with blue like skim milk, or fine porcelain. Her voice was soft and low and sweet; ethereal dulcet tones that were barely audible; melodious whispers you had to strain to hear. When she was a baby her cries were so feeble that Sarah used to say "Pinch her Aggie, that'll get a good cry out of her.", but Aggie never would, and surely Sarah was kidding. Marion was the least likely from the start to ever be able to survive any trauma, and yet God saw fit to choose her for the fever. And for all Sarah's preaching on God and all his wisdom, Aggie would never forgive him for choosing the weakest of the children to devastate with such a disease. Nor could she forgive Him for taking one of the twins. Where was the wisdom in that? Why was she given two babies only to have one taken back eighteen months later, after she'd loved him and cared for him and he was as much a part of her as the air in her lungs? She hadn't thought about Jake in a long time, and the sinking feeling in her stomach as soon as she thought about him reminded her of the promise she hadn't kept. There'd been no money and no insurance, and to insure that Jake wouldn't be buried in Potter's field, and Sarah arranged to have Paul's grave opened, and they laid Jake's tiny casket a few inches of dirt on top of the other tiny casket already buried there. It wasn't exactly legal, Sarah said, but the cemetery director was a friend of Gus' who owed him a favor, and it was only temporary until they could afford another grave. "They'll keep each other company." Sarah said, but Aggie was mortified; mortified and paralyzed by her inability to do anything to change the situation. And she promised Jake she'd save enough money to have him moved into his own grave. She didn't mind having her son share a grave with her brother, but she couldn't sleep at night for a long time thinking about how he wasn't buried deep enough, and how animals would dig up the grave and break into the coffin and chew the little body to pieces. It wasn't right. But she'd never been able to save the money and Jake was still buried on top of Paul, and it took some time before she was able to stop thinking about it all the time.

Temporary. Everything was so mixed up. The things that were supposed to be temporary, like Jake's grave, like her living with Sarah, like Sam's absence, were turning out to be permanent, and the things that she'd always thought were unchanging, like Sam, like the kids needing her, like feeling in control, like Sam, like Sam, like Sam, were drifting and evolving into something else. Even if Sam had not been dependable and reliable, there was still a pattern to his aberrations. And that pattern would be gone if she got this divorce. Or was the pattern already gone?

Aggie added the sugar to her coffee, plus an extra spoonful for good measure, and as she did, she felt something rising hot inside her. It felt like anger, yet was not the anger she felt at the kids when they didn't behave, or at Sam when he took off on his little escapades, or at Sarah when she nagged. This was dense and hot and choking. and it seemed to have taken her over. It was all she could do not to cry out, for this anger hurt and it hurt bad. It tore through her body with a sharpness and heat so intense it took her breath away. Her chest compressed with it and she had to get relief from it. Without even thinking what she was doing, she picked up the cup of coffee and threw it crashing against the wall. It was plastic and did not break. She would have felt better if it had broken, but it bounced off the wall and clattered onto the floor, whole and undamaged. She looked at it and suddenly fell into heavy sobs that came from so far deep down inside it seemed she would split up into pieces and scatter over the floor like so much wasted matter, sobs that so pierced and stabbed at her she fended them off with her arms and hands as though they were coming from the outside. Aggie had been through the pain of labor six times and thought nothing could possibly be worse, but this pain would not be alleviated by delivery, and she knew it would repeat itself time and time again now that it had been given birth.

She was exhausted despite the coffee, and laid her head down on folded arms on the table, and after a while, after the sobs slowed and all the sighs were depleted and she felt empty inside, she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

...from QUICKSAND, a novel in progress, by Arlene Greene. She writes from Des Plaines, Illinois