by Sophie Lefens
Jill went to the fridge for eggs. She reached behind the leftover platters from the funeral and saw that the empty carton had not been replaced. Tom forgot. It wasn’t a big deal. She knew it wasn’t a big deal. She even said, “It’s not a big deal, Tom.” She was sure there was a difference between ignoring and forgetting but could not, in that moment, decide which was worse and could not have described the difference to herself or anyone else.
Tom buttered two pieces of toast and handed one to Jill. Holding the bread between his teeth, he grabbed both his and Jill’s coat from the hooks by the door. He placed his own coat over the back of a chair and held Jill’s open behind her, waiting for her to fill it and give it shape. Tom and Jill had been married for twelve years and on Saturdays they walked together. The unpaved trail behind their neighborhood escaped the attention of the local jogging moms and it was quiet and mostly unused. Dense, bare branches nestled them inside the forest. The leaves were beneath them now, dirtied and stained by the winter mud.
Tom walked quickly and Jill stayed in sync with his steps. In the last nine months, her body had not been her own. Now, walking with such ease, she felt the echoes of guilt. How could she be moving so freely? Why wasn’t she in her home rocking her new infant? Why had she given birth too early? Too late? Why didn’t someone offer her a trade? One year of Saturday walks in exchange for a soft, breathing child. These questions had been boiling for days and they brought no answers, only hollow heat. So Jill listened to Tom begin:
“The trick, I think, is to make art and literature that has no puzzles but pushes straight on for transparency. Contemporary poetry, for example, is, ah, more than problematic. It stinks out loud. It doesn’t really give me full body thrills, but the academics encourage this odd, indirect, form of noodling.”
He was no respecter of time or place. Tom lived within a Kerouacian consciousness and the boop-bop rhythm of these speeches had been the soundtrack of Jill’s last twelve years. It kept her moving and she used to welcome and join the sound.
Years ago, they had walked a similar path behind Tom’s childhood home. They were visiting his mother over fall break, and even though they had only been dating since the summer, Tom loved Jill and Jill loved Tom, though none of the usual words had been exchanged. They drove from Madison, where Tom was studying art and Jill was three years into a journalism degree. Tom was eager to show his mother some of his paintings and Jill hoped the visit would put Tom in context.
One of their nights there, Tom led Jill down the thin foot path into the forest where he had spent most of his youth. The ground was littered with the remains of boyhood forts. Rope, wood, little chairs and planks, even a few nails scattered across the wet ground. On that path Tom had held Jill’s hand gently and shared with her his thoughts.
“Remember how you felt things when you were younger? You weren’t even fully conscious but every experience was so visceral, so raw. That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to create, Jill. I sometimes envy those with unschooled appreciation for what really, just—bam, gets them.”
Jill loved this. Tom’s syncopated sentences kept her awake to the world. When he spoke waves of heat lit her chest and she felt filled, evened out. Jill’s love for Tom became firm and formed.
Now, years later, Tom’s sounds had become harsh. The absence of the expected coos and cries heightened every living noise. Tom’s words grated against her as they walked past fallen trees reaching into the air. She knew Tom had been relieved. He had never wanted children. In the years they had spent together he had expressed this to her many times. When the child was born without breath, Jill saw Tom’s face. It was blank.
It was early January now and a thin layer of ice glazed the water’s surface. Jill could see bubbles and currents of water running underneath. She considered pointing this out to Tom, but he spoke without pause.
“You know that Frost poem I was talking about? It has everything and seems so simple. So naive. But no no no no. It has the power of direct-true-full-real-life and how it can be, once in a while, seriously rock solid knowing you are alive.”
It was at this point Jill began to untie her shoes. Tom did not pause; maybe he didn’t notice. Maybe he thought she needed to fix her shoe. But her empty shoes were in the middle of the path and Jill walked towards the river. She felt the frostbitten leaves sting her toes and did not pause at the edge of the water. The weight of her warm body sent cracks shrieking through the ice. Tom called after her but did not run.
She pushed the shattered windows down stream, creating her own bath-sized pool in the middle of the river. The water came to her chest and she parted it with her hands, bowed her head, and dove. With her head tucked, she brought in her knees and her thin arms propelled herself under and over, somersaulting like she had as a girl at the community pool. Only now she begged the water to fill her. She felt her lungs expand and empty and she welcomed the tightness against her chest. Jill remembered the classes. In and out. In and out. She had done everything to prepare.
She ached each time the cold caressed her skin. The freezing water made every nerve in her body self-aware. At the top of each spin she ate the iced air and waited for the silence that the next second would bring. Through blurred eyes she saw Tom’s figure standing at the water’s edge. Was he keeping track of her breathing this time? Soon, she would swim to the river’s edge. Tom would hurriedly tuck his coat around her and hold her tight, furiously rubbing her shoulders as they walked home. He would run a hot bath. He would boil water for tea. As he waited, he would taste the warm, wet salt running down his face. In the evening they would sit together and search for words.
But now, in the river, she was too cold to float and too hollow to sink. So she continued spinning above and below into the water over and over again. Birth required breathing. She knew this.