Sugar

In Issue 71 by Priscilla Thompson

Sugar
Photo by koldunova_anna on Adobe Stock

It was the perfect day—until the fat neighbor ruined it.

Emily had just returned from a thirteen-mile jog and was sitting in her rocking chair by the window, thinking about what she might—or might not—eat. She imagined placing a chicken breast on a bed of lettuce with cherry tomatoes and perhaps a slice of the avocado lying on the window sill, so perfectly ripe from the sun. Or, perhaps not. She could let the avocado shrivel and darken, turning to mush on the inside. I don’t need to eat it, she thought.

Then the doorbell rang. Less than a minute later, again. Each time, cracking the silence like an egg.

Through the peephole, Emily stared out at a large woman, her silver-blonde hair neatly curled and her Revlon lips smiling. Oh God, she thought, remembering the only other house on the road. Is that the neighbor? Emily had just moved in the day before.

As she opened the door, the woman’s rude, happy voice burst in: “Hello! Greetings!” She thrust something toward Emily, a loaf pan wrapped in a dish towel.

“Banana bread.” It was still warm.

Her name was Sandra, but she said to call her Sandy. She lived in the red Colonial adjacent to the field across from Emily. Maple Leaf Farm. Instinctively, Emily stepped onto the stoop, rather than let Sandy inside. The damp seeped through her socks.

“I know, I know,” Sandy laughed. “Maple Leaf Farm. So original, right?”

Sandy’s face was round and red. What was that skin disorder called again? Rosacea? But Emily could tell she had been pretty once.

“My husband, Harold and I, we just wanted to welcome you. I was so pleased when the realtor told me a nice single lady was moving in. The place has been vacant for a year.”

Single. Ordinarily, the word would have gouged, but Emily was too preoccupied by staring at Sandy’s wide hips, only somewhat wider than her rectangular shelf of breasts. Sandy was dressed in a gray sweater and skinny jeans. To Emily, she looked more like a block of granite than a female shape. Emily guessed she was fifty-five, sixty at most.

Emily mustered a smile. “Thank you,” she said. “For the bread.”

“Oh, yes, I hope you like it. I saw you running this morning and I thought, Sandy, that girl needs some food. A twig about to snap! And here—” She handed Emily a slip of paper. “Here is our house phone number. Cell phones don’t work too well out here. Let us know if you need anything. My hubby, Harry, he’s retired, so he has plenty of time. You just let us know. It’s hard without a man around.”

Emily remembered her husband, David, standing in the doorway. The sorrow in his voice: how can I love you the way you are?

“Thank you,” Emily said again, reaching for the doorknob.

“Ok, well, I’ll get going. More loaves in the oven. Historical Society bake sale tomorrow.”

Emily was partway through the door when Sandy turned back.

“Oh, and before I forget, don’t worry if you see Harry out prowling around. He’s tapping the trees. It’s sugaring time.” She pointed toward the pale blue tubes, zigzagging between the trees along the edge of the field.

When Emily finally closed the door, she peeled back the soft towel, releasing a waft of warmth. It had chocolate chips.

Until now, Mrs. Meter had not said a word. She was silent when she was well pleased.

 You know what you need to do, Mrs. Meter said. You can’t leave it in the kitchen. You’ll eat it all, fat pig.

Emily watched from the window until Sandy was gone. Then she went to the back porch where she kept the trash bin.

Good. There. Mrs. Meter was quiet again. But Emily’s first full day in her new house was ruined. She had an itchy feeling inside, the same feeling she got when she couldn’t find a matching lid for her Tupperware.

#

Emily bought the yellow farmhouse with a metal roof and slanting floors for one reason alone: running. The farmhouse was on a dirt road which twisted and turned for miles, following the jags of a mountain stream. Every morning, Emily ran with the dark water, around the shady, snow-crusted bends. When she got back, she recorded her time, down to the second, on a piece of graph paper tacked by the front door, her handwriting neat and crisp, her pencil sharp. The idea of this graph paper becoming dense with penciled times filled Emily with such a deep sense of satisfaction, she could only imagine it was happiness. In spring, she would rush with the melt of mountains; in summer, she would drink the breeze from moss-covered rocks. Who buys a house for running? her mother wanted to know. But running was the only time when Emily’s mind was free.

The realtor had tried to dissuade her. It’s very isolated, she’d warned, you won’t see a soul. Yet, after the divorce, that’s exactly what Emily wanted—to be left alone.

Apparently, the realtor underestimated Sandy.

Three days after introducing herself, Sandy was back on Emily’s stoop, this time with apple crumble and ice cream. She held two bowls high in the air like she was on the Home Shopping Network. “In case you haven’t unpacked your kitchen stuff yet.”

What was Emily supposed to do?

She gestured toward the table by the picture window, striped with rain. Her whole body flattened with the indifference that comes after defeat. “I brewed some tea,” she said.

“Oh, that would be perfect!” Sandy exclaimed, hanging her yellow slicker on the back of an antique chair. Emily winced; she’d inherited that chair from her mother.

“Thank you for getting me out of the house,” Sandy said. “When Harry can’t get out sugaring and there is no snow to plow, he is up my rump, if you know what I mean. I told him, ‘Go into town, look at the mowers,’ but you know, they are going to do what they’re going to do. You work?”

“Remotely,” Emily said, as she set the teacups on the table. This was a lie, but she didn’t want to explain why she was unemployed.

“Lucky you. I wish we could go back to the old days when Harry worked. You know what they say about absence.” Sandy winked. “Makes for better sex.”

Emily didn’t know how to arrange her face; she couldn’t process these words from an old, obese woman.

Sandy pulled the crumble out of a thermos bag and scooped a large portion into a bowl.

“Ice cream on the top or on the side?” she asked.

“I’m fine,” Emily said. “I just had lunch.” She meant she was fine, she didn’t want any apple crumble, but Sandy thought she was talking about the ice cream.

 “Go on, try a spoonful, honey. It’s homemade, Harry’s original vanilla bean.” Sandy plopped down a blob on the crumble and placed the bowl in front of Emily.

“Honestly…” Sandy dropped her voice to a whisper now, as if she were telling Emily a secret. “Men like a little curve, honey. Not the boy look.”

 She just wants you to be fat like her, Mrs. Meter interjected.

Emily squirmed inside. The ice cream was starting to melt, mixing in with the sugary topping. She took a sip of tea.

“That’s nice you have a career, though. I was going to school to be a typist when I met Harry. So that tells you how ancient I am. Never did finish that. You know, kids.”

Just make it look like you are eating, said Mrs. Meter. Take one bite and then move it around with your spoon.

 “Mmm. Came out just right.” Sandy licked her lips. “Just the right amount of sugar, not too sweet.”

But when Emily took a bite, it swallowed her. The tartness of the apple, like a perfect sarcastic joke. And the caramelized brown sugar holding it all together. Why did it feel so much like hugging? That warm feeling, when you don’t want to let go. And then the crunchy topping…

 Emily set her spoon down after one bite and folded her hands in her lap. She couldn’t stop thinking about the crumble. It magnetized her, absorbed her entire body. From the taste on her tongue to the prickly electricity in her fingers, ready to grab the spoon, her whole body yearned toward sugar. Emily took another bite, this time with the creamy vanilla. And then another.

Mrs. Meter was horrified. What are you doing? Stop!

Sandy stared at Emily wistfully. “Your job is remote? Like on the computer?”

“Yes.”

“What do you do on the computer?”

“I work for an insurance company.” That’s what Emily used to do. Almost thirteen years. It still felt true when she said it. It’s where she and David met.

Stop eating, Mrs. Meter snapped. Stop talking.

After David told her about the affair, Emily resigned. How could she stand to see him in line at the copy machine? He offered to apply elsewhere, but she couldn’t give him that easy atonement. She had enough funds in her savings account to live for a year without working anyway. Mrs. Meter had seen to that.

Sandy sighed. “I thought about going back to school when the babies were older, but Harry was working two jobs by then. I tried to get little jobs I could fit between school pickup and grocery shopping. I had four sons, so I was running busy.”

Emily had one bite left in the bowl. Just one.

Sandy’s bowl was still half full.

“Once, I got this brilliant idea—I get a lot of those—I’ll do dog walking. How hard can that be?”

Sandy pointed her spoon directly at Emily. “Well, I’m about to tell you. My head was so full up with kids’ details—doctor’s appointments, football practices—I was hardly ever paying attention. One day I get home from dog walking and it hits me. Sandy! You left the wrong dog in the wrong house.”

Sandy noticed Emily’s bowl was empty and started to spoon another helping of apple crumble. “Just a taste more?”

Emily felt her body give in. She’d already screwed up anyway.

“What happened?” Emily asked. She wanted Sandy to keep talking. Mrs. Meter didn’t speak as much when Sandy was talking.

“Oh, sweet baby Jesus.” Sandy whistled. “I rushed so fast, fast as my pudgy legs could carry me, trying to make the switch before the owners got home. I was trickling pee in my pants, I was so scared! And then there I am, rounding up a dog in the fancy doctor’s house, when he comes in. ‘What are you doing?’ he asks. I said, ‘I’m just admiring your plants, sir.’ They were very pretty. He was into African orchids, you know. And he says, ‘Who is that?’ looking at the Chihuahua I’m holding. ‘Oh, this dog?’ I played it cool. ‘This is Ralph.”

Emily giggled. She didn’t have to tell her face what to do. It just happened.

Sandy laughed too, a loud, vibrant laugh. Her soft body moved back and forth, reminding Emily of that phrase, “a bowl full of jelly,” from the children’s story her mother read on Christmas Eve. The only time her mother read aloud to her.

When their laughter quieted, Sandy sighed again and leaned back with a creak of the chair.

“Yup. His dog was a Siberian husky, so it was a little embarrassing to explain how I got that one mixed up.”

Emily leaned back as well. She hadn’t realized she had been leaning so far forward. Her body felt warm, sleepy. In the brief pause, she heard the clock ticking and the sound of the rain on the metal roof.

You don’t have long, Mrs. Meter said. Get her out so you can puke.

But Emily didn’t want Sandy to leave. She didn’t know why. She only knew her desire for Sandy to stay was as powerful as her desire for apple crumble.

“You should stay until the downpour passes, so you don’t get drenched.”

“Sure,” Sandy said. “Do you play cribbage? I brought a board in my bag.”

#

It was bad when Sandy finally left. One of the worst times since Emily was a teenager. Mrs. Meter wouldn’t stop. Disgusting.

It had been four hours. Nothing would come up now.

You’ve messed it all up. Everything.

“I’m sorry,” Emily repeated as she paced back and forth across the living room. It was a mantra, a rosary. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

She wanted to go for a run, but the rain was blinding, the sky was dark. She checked in the mirror; her hip bones still jutted out, but she swore her stomach was rounder. She felt the food settling there, immovable like a stone.

Lard bucket. Lard bucket.

Emily did a hundred jumping jacks. You think that’s going to help? Then, sweating, crying, she grabbed an old toothbrush and began scrubbing the graying grout between the tiles in the bathroom shower. When she was finished, she cleaned the medicine cabinet, scrubbing at the orange rust circles left on the bottom shelf from some long-ago bottle of shaving cream. But nothing, nothing was good enough to make Mrs. Meter stop. No matter what she did, Emily couldn’t change it. She had eaten two scoops of crumble and ice cream.

It was just after midnight when she couldn’t take it anymore. She couldn’t sleep. If she was a fat pig and nothing could make it right, then Emily wanted more. She threw off her covers and rushed downstairs, yanking open the cupboard and tearing through its contents. She found the bag of dried cranberries hidden at the back. Emily was allowed a carefully measured cup once a week—if she was good. That was the only exception to Mrs. Meter’s cardinal rule: no carbohydrates, and absolutely, under no circumstances, any sugar. But tonight, Emily didn’t take a handful. She poured the entire bag into her mouth, kicking herself that she made Sandy take home the leftover apple crumble. And then she remembered.

Barefoot on the wet porch, Emily dug frantically through three days of food scraps and trash. She couldn’t hear anything around her or see anything other than the object of her desire, and finally, there, underneath the coffee grinds and wilted lettuce, she found it, soggy but intact. The chocolate chip banana bread.

It wasn’t until after she had eaten the whole loaf, clawing off chunks with her fingers, that the world came into relief again. The downpour had stopped. Rain dripped from the branches.

Satisfied?

It was over, for now. Emily licked the stickiness from her hands.

Tomorrow you will make it up to me.

#

To Emily, it seemed like Mrs. Meter had been with her forever. Certainly, since grade school. She was the one who selected Emily’s outfits every night before school and made her check her homework three times before passing it in.

Though she may have been with Emily since childhood, Mrs. Meter was buried deep until last year.

“Name her?” Emily thought the therapist was kidding.

“Yes,” the therapist said with a serious expression. “Sometimes it is helpful to name that inner critical voice. To picture that part of your personality as a separate person. It helps to differentiate.”

“What? Do you think I have multiple personalities or something?”

The therapist shook her head and smiled patiently. “No, that’s something very different.”

As the therapist continued to talk, Emily tightened her smile, giddy with righteous indignation. She finally had her exit strategy! While she was going to therapy to satisfy David’s request, he was eminently practical. Once she told him about this new-age mumbo-jumbo, she was confident he’d agree it was a waste of time and money.

However, as Emily was making dinner that night (spaghetti bolognaise for David, broiled fish and steamed broccoli for herself), a name popped into her head. Just like that, out of nowhere, as she opened the pot and blinked into the steaming broccoli. Mrs. Meter.

Emily put the lid back on, but it was too late.

There she was: a tall, austere woman, in black pants and an ivory silk blouse that tied at the neck in a bow. Her swirly brown hair was sprayed in place like a helmet, no wisp to be found; glasses hung from her neck on a golden chain.

Broccoli. Excellent choice, Mrs. Meter said, adding a tally mark on the chalkboard behind her.

There were two columns on the chalkboard. Good and Bad.

#

Mrs. Meter’s concerns went well beyond food. She had an opinion about everything. Kitchen counters were the canvas of the soul; they must always be clutter-free. Emily walked behind David, throwing out his mail, picking up his drink glasses. At least once a day, he would complain, “Hey, I’m still drinking that.” There was a right way to fold the laundry, a perfect way to make the bed. Even sex had certain parameters: what was acceptable, what was not.

On the night David told her, Emily was ironing his shirts—something he never asked her to do, but Mrs. Meter insisted.

The pieces started to fall into place, a mental jigsaw Emily would work on for days and weeks afterwards. The late nights. The projects that seemed to take longer than they used to.  And the recent request she go to therapy. How ridiculous she was! He asked her to go to therapy “to get healthy.” She thought it was because he still wanted to start a family with her. But no. Now she saw it. He was setting her up for when he was going to tell her. Preparing… positioning a safety net underneath her for that moment in time when his words would push her out of a moving plane.

He was having an affair with a woman he met online.

“How long?”

“Four months,” he replied. “I didn’t know I was going to fall in love.”

“But I thought you...” Her voice trailed off. She was going to say, I thought you loved me. But she lost the energy to even finish her sentence.

He was standing in the doorway between the dining room and the kitchen.

“How can I love you the way you are?” he asked.

It wasn’t said with venom; it wasn’t said to hurt her. Far, far worse, Emily thought, it was said in sadness, just a statement of what she ought to know.

Emily laughed afterwards, after he had gone. A scary little laugh. She had managed not to burn his shirt. Somehow, it was perfect. Not a single wrinkle, not a single mark.

#

Emily ran farther now; the graph paper was filling in.

One morning in March, Emily lingered too long after her jog, stretching by the stone wall in front of her house. Sandy spotted her and hurried down the road, her thighs rubbing together in something like a run-walk. Emily was horrified that Sandy would dare to wear yoga pants. And a pom-pom hat too.

“Emily!”

Damn, her left knee hurt. Mrs. Meter had made Emily run almost seventeen miles that day.

Sandy was out of breath by the time she reached Emily.

“Ahh… just helping Harry check the sap pails. He insists on having a few…” She leaned over, placing her hands on her knees, trying to get a good breath.

“Take your time,” Emily said.

“He insists on having a few even though he’s switched over to tubing. I do love them though. I thought they were mailboxes for forest animals when I was a girl.”

Emily was shocked. She had thought the same thing. Her sisters laughed at her for that.

“Fancy a hand of Gin?” Sandy asked. “Harry’s going to be boiling sap for the next few hours.”

Careful, Mrs. Meter warned.

“Okay,” Emily replied. “But I better stay away from the baked goods for now.” She put a hand on her stomach, reciting exactly what Mrs. Meter had instructed her to say. “I have a gluten sensitivity.”

 “Oh.” Sandy looked disappointed. “Maybe I can find some special recipes for next time. I—”

“No,” Emily interrupted. “Doctor’s orders. I’ll make us tea though.”

#

They sat again at the table in front of the window. As Sandy dealt the cards, Emily eyed her many gold rings, one on almost every puffy finger. Sandy must have noticed her staring.

“Can’t get my wedding ring off,” she said. “Even with Windex. Guess that’s a metaphor for marriage.”

Emily was suddenly aware of her own bare hands.

“You ever been married?” Sandy asked.

“Yes.” Emily stiffened.

“But no kids?” Sandy asked.

Emily shook her head.

“That’s sad.”

“We never wanted children,” Emily said quickly.

“Hmm.” Sandy leaned back, fanning the cards on her stomach.

Emily wasn’t sure what “hmm” meant. Judgment? Skepticism? She was terrified of more questions.

The truth was David had wanted children desperately. He had a college fund set up before they even met. He had names picked out: Genevieve or Peter. It wasn’t that Emily didn’t want kids. It was more complicated than that. When she married David, she hadn’t had a period in several years.

“Kids,” Sandy mused, without looking up from her hand. “They’re a blessing from God and a joke from the devil. But if it weren’t for them, I think maybe Harry and I wouldn’t have made it.”

Emily relaxed. She was starting to realize that when Sandy asked her a personal question, it was only a set-up to tell her own story.

“Let me tell you. Ten years into my marriage with Harry, I had twin babies and a kid in school, and the bastard told me he had an affair.”

Now, Emily was interested. “Really?” She forgot to draw again, and Sandy nodded at the pile.

“Honest to God truth,” Sandy continued. “One Monday morning, Harry got all dressed for work and when he came downstairs, I saw he’d packed a suitcase. He said, ‘Sandy, I made a mistake. I’ll go if you tell me to, but I don’t want to.’ Yup, just like that. Said, ‘It isn’t right and I’ve stopped. I’m in love with you.”

“Oh God, Sandy.”

“So here I am in the kitchen, prepping a bird for the oven, warming bottles at the same time, and the twins in high chairs. Pile of dishes in the sink. My chest was ripped off. Clean off. I thought my insides were gonna spill out. I had just turned thirty.”

 “What happened?” Emily asked. She was thinking of that moment with David. The free fall. How surreal it felt.

“What happened was I didn’t let him off so easy. I told him, ‘You are going to put that suitcase down right now, Harold Martin. You are gonna come home tonight after work and you’re gonna sit down at that table I set, and you’re gonna slice that bird, and you are going to talk to your children, and you are going to be their father. And you are never ever going to touch me again.’ That’s what I said, cold and calm, like reading from a script. I don’t know how I knew what to say, it just came out. And that’s what Harry did. He put the suitcase down, picked up the lunch I handed him, and went out the door.”

“That’s it?”

“God no, girl. That’s not it.” Sandy laughed her deep-throated laugh. “As soon as he shut the door, I threw the bottle I was holding, clear across the room. My babies started crying and I started sobbing. There we were, wailing and wailing and milk splatter everywhere. It must have been quite the sight. I got them babies out of the high chairs, and I was holding them in my arms on the kitchen floor, just holding them so tight. It was for them. I told Harry later that night, ‘This is for our three kids, not for you. Don’t ever forget that.”

Emily was confused. “But you had another child. You said you had four sons.”

Sandy smiled. “Yes, that’s right. Ben. My gift from God. After Harry’s little revelation, I had a stillborn, and not a year later, God gave me Ben.”

“How could you forgive Harry? You know, enough to…” Emily’s voice trailed.

“Sometimes you forgive maybe more than you ought, more than you even want to, and you hate yourself for it. Then you realize afterwards, well, that was supposed to happen. I started out forgiving him for the kids and then somewhere along the way, I don’t know when, it was for us.”

But David didn’t want to stay, Emily thought. He didn’t even ask. Would it have been different if she could have conceived?

“Harry hasn’t lied to me since,” Sandy said. “That’s the important thing. He knows I’d chop him with an axe and be gone to Mexico if he did. Feels like a lifetime ago.”

“Do you still think about it?” Emily asked.

“Not often,” said Sandy. “But I do. I wonder sometimes what would have happened if I made him leave. Would I have found someone who loved me without hurting me? Or is it real love because he stayed and I forgave?”

“I call those V-cisions,” Emily blurted out. She hadn’t planned to say that, but now she was committed. “You know, like ‘decision’ but with the letter V. Because from one point, your life breaks off in two different directions. Only one side is imagined, it’s just a shadow life.”

“Huh,” said Sandy, scrutinizing her cards.

Emily instantly regretted her words; she’d never told anyone that before. She felt Mrs. Meter’s chalk mark strike through her core. Bad.

Why would you tell her such a stupid thing?

But then Sandy spoke. “You know, I like that word, V-cision. I guess by the time we’re old, us gals have V-cisions all over our lives, kinda like varicose veins.”

Emily was shocked; her chest instantly lightened.

“Gin,” she said softly.

“Oh, Emily! You skinny devil!” Sandy squeezed her arm tightly. “You got me philosophizing so I would be distracted.”

She left her hand there, Emily thought, for just a second longer than she needed to.

“Well, I’m just a load of deadwood,” Sandy confessed, laying her cards on the table. “No bother even counting ’em up.”

There’s nothing dead about you, Emily thought. You’re the most alive person I know.

“Rematch?” Sandy asked.

“Rematch,” Emily agreed. In that moment, it was almost as if the columns on the chalkboard had been erased.

#

Sandy came over nearly every day after that, usually in the afternoons when she got back from one of her many volunteer jobs. Emily’s left leg throbbed after her runs, so she would stretch it out on a chair in front of her, holding on an ice pack, as she and Sandy played cribbage or cards. Mrs. Meter was not particularly happy, but she was willing to tolerate Sandy’s visits if she didn’t bring food. On the one occasion when Sandy brought a gluten-free recipe, golden popovers, Emily took one bite. Only one. She left it sitting on the plate.

Sandy finally got the hint.

“I see,” she said, laughing. “That’s your ‘No thank-you’ bite. Okay, okay, I get it.”

Sandy continued to bring stories, however, little sitcom snippets from her life, usually featuring herself as the hapless star. Emily couldn’t help but laugh with her, something subtle expanding in her chest until she burst out in giggles, breaking out of a corset she didn’t even know she was wearing. After laughing, Emily’s chest felt so light and full and airy—like the inside of one of Sandy’s popovers.

Emily hadn’t felt like that since…. since when? College? She remembered how the light shone in Allison’s blonde hair when they sat on the campus lawn during those long summer evenings. Emily would fold her brown knees up to her chin, watching Allison laugh and joke with the others. Every now and again, in the pauses, Allison would glance over and meet Emily’s eyes. Something was different about the light that time of evening in June. It was gauzy, hanging in the trees, strewn on the dark mown lawn, like clothes someone stepped out of and left behind.

Allison and her friends were going skinny dipping that night. Mrs. Meter reminded Emily of the books piled neatly in the carrel at the library. She had a paper due the next day.

“Come on, come with us…”

Allison looked right at her when she said this. She didn’t look away.

“Okay,” Emily said, surprising herself at how natural it sounded.

Emily’s chest had felt full of light and air that evening. Possibility.

#

Had she given up the only chance she would have in life? To have someone really love her? Emily asked herself this as she tossed in bed, restless, desiring sleep. Just there… just slipping in… then something would pull her out. It was the hunger, she knew, but Mrs. Meter wouldn’t admit it. The hunger kept her floating on the surface of sleep, never fully pulled under by the tide, re-replaying the moment of her decision again and again.

After graduating college, they lived together for two years in Boston, both working jobs they knew were going nowhere. On a whim, Allison had applied to Stanford.

“I didn’t tell you because I never thought I’d get in.”

Emily refused to look at her. Instead, she stared at the labeled boxes, piled high in the corner of their tiny living room. Her mother had just sold the family home, parceling out belongings between Emily and sisters. Emily had no other place to store them.

“Come with me,” Allison said from the doorway of the kitchen. It was soft. A plea.

If Emily moved with her, then what they were doing was real.

She concentrated on reading the writing on the side of the boxes: twelve-piece blue herringbone china. Silver tea set.

This is what she was doing when she heard Allison whisper. “Please.” This is what she saw at night, fourteen years later, as she stared at her bedroom ceiling: her mother’s elegant, looping cursive. Even on a cardboard box, even with a black Sharpie. Perfect, her mother’s penmanship.

Another box marked: family christening gown.

“How’s your roommate?” Emily’s mother had asked on the phone that night.  “She’s fine,” Emily said. “She’s going to grad school in California.”

Not long after, Emily moved back to Vermont, where she was raised. She got a sensible job at an insurance company, good benefits. She rented a storage unit for her mother’s boxes. And she waited for a husband.

David worked in the cubicle next to hers. He wore wool sweaters that bunched around the waist and pants that were one size too small, but he was kind. He was the type of guy who cut articles out of newspapers for her—Best Cross-Country Ski Trails in Vermont, How to Train for a Marathon—and left them taped to her monitor. He did it for everyone in the office, that’s just how he was. It wasn’t until she came to work on the morning of her thirtieth birthday that it dawned on her he might have a crush. He had strung together hundreds of yellow paper clips, hanging them across her cubicle. Yellow sticky notes radiated from her monitor like square sunbeams. “Yellow is your favorite color,” David said softly from behind her. “I remember you told me that.”

Her relationship with David wasn’t a V-cision. It was something that happened gradually, slow and meandering like an S, carrying her without awareness. The current only grew swifter when her mother reminded her, “You are turning thirty.”

#

April came and the real thaw began, turning the dirt road outside Emily’s house into mud. The black-capped chickadees gossiped in the bare branches, “It’s coming, don’t you know? Don’t you know?” they promised. “Spring.” When Emily left the windows open, she could hear the stream, now a river, rushing fast with the melted snow.

 There was a full moon the night Sandy arrived on Emily’s front stoop. At the surprise of the doorbell, Emily looked out her bedroom window to see Sandy wearing a puffy winter jacket over her plaid nightgown. She rushed downstairs to open the door.

“Sandy, what are you doing here?” The night air smelled of pine and wood smoke.

Sandy wore no makeup; her hair was pinned up behind her ears. Emily had never seen her look so… natural. She was beautiful in the moonlight.

“I know it’s late.”

“It’s okay.” Emily opened the door wide. “You know you’re always welcome.”

Sandy kicked off her muddy boots and pulled a bottle of peppermint schnapps from her jacket pocket. “Here,” she said, “let’s share. Oh, wait, is alcohol gluten-free? Oh, fuck it.” She waved her hand like she was shooing away a bug and swept past Emily toward the kitchen.

“Sometimes you gotta live. Glasses?”

“Over there.” Emily pointed. “Above the sink.”

Sandy found teacups and poured, steadying herself by holding onto the counter.

“What’s the matter, Sandy?”

“Here. Cheers.” They toasted their tea cups of schnapps.

“I just had to get out of the house, you know. Take a little break.”

The liquid tasted like cough syrup. Emily wanted to spit it out, but she liked how it left a warm trail in her chest, even long after swallowing.

“Let’s sit down,” Sandy said. She took Emily’s hand and led her over to the faded floral couch, yet another hand-me-down from Emily’s mother.

Sandy sighed as she sat down. “There. That’s better.”

It was a love seat. Sandy took up most of the space and Emily squeezed into one corner. It felt strange sitting so close to Sandy’s warm body. She could smell her Pond’s face cream. Emily stared at the freckles on Sandy’s chest, visible where the collar of her nightgown parted. The skin in the crevice between her breasts was wrinkled. Emily didn’t even know that part of a woman’s body could wrinkle.

She wanted to kiss it.

“Harry is going to Burlington this weekend for his conference.”

Sandy had told her about that last week. Every April, Harry met up with sugar guys from around the state, as Sandy said, to “geek out” looking at the latest equipment and listening to speakers.

“Well, he wants to meet her there,” Sandy said.

“Who?” Emily felt her body stiffen. She was suddenly afraid.

“The girl.”

“The girl? Who is that?” Was she talking about the woman Harry had an affair with so long ago?

“His daughter.” Sandy sniffed in her tears.

Emily didn’t want to get up to get a tissue. She was afraid if she moved, they would never be this close again. She took the scrunchie off her wrist and handed it to Sandy.

“You can use this,” Emily said. “I don’t care.”

Sandy laughed. “Oh, Emily. I love you.” She dabbed at her nose. “I’ve never told anyone. We didn’t know until last year when the girl found him, doing that online ancestry stuff everyone does now.”

“Oh,” said Emily, feeling the weight sink in. “Oh.”

“Do you know why I didn’t tell you, Emily?”

Emily froze. Was she supposed to answer?

“Because I’m small. That’s why. When Harry talks to her online, I make him go out in the sugar house. That’s right. I make him go out in the freezing cold to talk to his own daughter. I can’t even let her voice in my house.”

“Because it reminds you?” Emily asked. “Of the affair?”

“Yes. And because I don’t have a daughter. The stillborn I had after Harry’s affair. It was a girl. She was a girl.” Sandy blew her nose into the scrunchie. “I hate it. How do you miss someone that never was?”

“But you have your sons,” Emily said softly.

“It’s not the same with sons. They get married and you lose them.”

“Oh,” she said quickly, embarrassed. “I didn’t know it was different.”

“No, you’re right, Emily. I should be grateful. Four healthy sons and six grandchildren. That’s what I mean by small. I can’t let that poor girl’s voice in my house because I didn’t get a daughter and I hate this other woman because she did.”

Emily wanted to hold her.

“So, when Harry told me tonight that the girl is flying out to meet him in Burlington this weekend, I lost it. He asked me to go with him to dinner, to meet her. And I laughed in his face. I said the cruelest things I have ever said in my life. And I meant them.”

The confession ended abruptly, as Sandy put her feet up on the coffee table. She rested her head on Emily’s shoulder.

“Small,” she kept repeating, her eyes closed. “Small.”

What was Emily supposed to do? Her hand was squished underneath Sandy. She had to move it. She pulled it out and there was no other place to put it except around Sandy’s shoulder.

Emily looked at her own hand, her red bitten fingernails. She thought about stroking Sandy’s hair. What would it feel like? Her silvery curls? She could feel her hand almost moving. Almost.

“I’m tired,” Sandy said. “I drank too much.” She turned sideways then, nuzzling her head under Emily’s chin and putting one heavy arm across Emily’s stomach.

“You can stay here this weekend, Sandy, when he’s gone.”

“Really?” Sandy looked up at her.

“Yes.”

Right there. Sandy’s pale, Revlon-free lips were inches away. Emily needed only to bend her head.

“You shouldn’t be alone,” Emily said. “I’ll make you dinner.”

Sandy put her head back down again. “I would like that.” After a moment, she added, “Wait. Will it be gluten-free?”

Emily smiled. “I wouldn’t do that to you.”

“Okay,” Sandy said. “Then I’m in.”

Emily’s heart hopped inside with hope. They lay there, holding one another, one big and one small, until Sandy said, “I guess it’s time to go home.”

That night, Emily slept deeply for the first time in months. She dreamt that she was wandering through the winter woods in a nightgown of the purest white. She grasped the blue tubing to steady herself, as if she were blind and the tubes were her guide. Come with me. Deeper and deeper into the trees, she went, following the tubes, searching for something: a source.

#

She wasn’t going to be a coward this time.

At seven o’clock, Emily was waiting outside the grocery store for the doors to open. She bought eggs, milk, bacon, brown sugar, flour, and fresh coffee beans. Beautiful cantaloupes and strawberries. For dinner, she bought asparagus, red potatoes, the nicest piece of lamb the butcher had, and a loaf of French bread. Two bottles of the finest wine.

Back at home, she set to work. She had so much to do! So much, in fact, that Mrs. Meter didn’t have room to say a word. First, Emily made the cinnamon roll dough according to her mother’s recipe. She wouldn’t bake them until the morning; she wanted them to be fresh in case Sandy spent the night. Then, Emily worked on the spice rub for the lamb, grinding fresh peppercorns with a mortar and pestle. She didn’t even have time to put the spices back in alphabetical order!

Finally, when everything was in the oven and the Hollandaise sauce was ready, Emily turned her attention to the table. Even with a fresh tablecloth, it needed something. The herringbone china! After the plates were washed, the blue china shone on the white tablecloth. And now Emily stepped out into the front yard. There were no flowers out yet, not even the forsythia, so she clipped just a single pussy willow branch from the bush by the stone wall. She stuck the stem into the narrow neck of an antique medicine bottle she’d found in the basement and placed the bottle in the center of the table. Lastly, she placed two wine glasses down and opened a bottle of Merlot to let it breathe. There. Perfect.

At five o’clock, Emily sat down in the rocking chair and waited. This must be happiness, she thought, knowing there is someone else in the universe who can receive all this love. She felt it spilling over the edges of her body, outgrowing the walls of the yellow house. It couldn’t be measured; it couldn’t be contained.

#

In the morning, the sun rose over the field, breaking pink through the bare branches. Emily watched it from her spot by the window. Behind her, the food sat on the kitchen counter. The red potatoes roasted in olive oil and garlic and salt. Cold to the touch. The Hollandaise sauce congealed across the top like a thin skim of ice on a pond.

What are you going to do now? Mrs. Meter asked.

Emily thought about running. Could she run from Sandy, the same way she ran from David’s words? How can I love you the way you are? Only running made the words stop. Could she run from the memory of Sandy’s voice on the answering machine?

“Emily, I’m going.” Sandy’s voice was subdued, resigned.

No one ever called, so it was ten o’clock last night before Emily finally thought to check her messages. Sandy must have called while she was shopping.

“I’m going with Harry to meet her,” Sandy said. “You helped me decide. I think it’s one of those V-cisions you were talking about. I do love him, the old fool.”

What did you think was going to happen? Mrs. Meter snickered. You ridiculous girl.

Emily put on her sneakers and cracked the door. The sun was just starting to take the edges off the morning frost.

No one can love you the way you are.

She took a deep breath. When she began to jog, slowly at first, she noticed a knife-like pain in her left knee every time she put weight on that foot. She tried to run, remembering how pain could propel her, but a pain unlike anything she had ever felt before seared through her knee and up through her thigh, causing her to cry out and her eyes to fill with tears. It was true. Emily couldn’t run.

The moment she realized this, stopping after only three or four steps, Emily felt wild inside, unhinged. The smell of spring was rising from the earth, rushing with the river, beckoning her, and she couldn’t go with it. She couldn’t run. How could she rid herself of these burdens now? She wanted to scream. She wanted to tear the world apart, rip the red buds off the branches with her teeth like a cavewoman ripped meat from the bone.

Mrs. Meter was furious too, but she was calm. Trust me. I’ll take care of it.

So, Emily didn’t scream. She stopped the timer on her watch and limped back to the house. She ripped the graph paper from the wall next to the door and threw it in the wood stove.

Next, she gathered the lamb, the potatoes, the bread, the dough—even the bottles of wine. Wincing in pain, she piled all of it in a wheelbarrow, pushing it as far into the woods as she could go. When she dumped the load, it thudded lamely into the matted leaves. The bottles didn’t even break.

#

Seven days. For seven days, Emily had nothing but tea and water. No food. She slept in the rocking chair during the day. She heard Sandy knocking, far away in the back of her dreams, and was thankful the blinds were closed and the door was locked. She stayed awake at night, getting up only to add wood to the stove.

During those seven nights, her mind drifted in and out of memory and fantasy, flickering together like flames and their shadows. Emily remembered details she hadn’t thought about in so long. Athletic. Her mother used to say her sisters were athletic. That’s why they could have dessert. When Emily went to reach for the pie, or the extra helping, her mother frowned and touched her arm, ever so lightly. “That’s not necessary, Emily.” The cakes her mother used to make with the lemon icing dripping down the sides, or the cinnamon rolls, how the smell would fill the house on Saturday mornings. Sometimes, Emily remembered, she would reach for something even when she wasn’t hungry, just to feel the lightness of her mother’s touch. Her mother’s hands were so soft, so delicate, the blue veins crisscrossing under pale linen skin. She was far too refined to swat Emily’s arm or slap her cheek. Instead, just the slightest touch, telling her again and again: no.

Emily considered telling crazy lies, desperate lies. What could she say that would make Sandy need her? Emily thought of telling Sandy about websites she never knew existed. She could hear herself saying, “I’m sorry, Sandy. I peeked through the window of the sugar house one night. He wasn’t talking to his daughter on the laptop. There was a naked woman on the screen.” She imagined Sandy crying, big ugly whale-sound cries. Sandy would need her then. Emily would stroke her hair and say, “It’s okay, Sandy. It’s okay.”

This is where desire inevitably led her. Here.

Emily had tried to get Allison back, years after she went to California, when Facebook brought them randomly together again. Yet, frustratingly, the messages between her and Allison were superficial: “Where are you working now?” “How are your parents?” It would take Allison days to respond. Emily was desperate.

She remembered the nights they spent crying together. “You are more than the sickness,” Allison would say. “I know you.”

Late one night, when everyone else had left from work, Emily messaged her: “You were right, Allie. I see it now. I’m ready to get help.”

Allison replied instantly.

“Emily! I’m so proud of you!” Then the links came: treatment programs, residential and outpatient. Emily’s mistake was asking her to come East too soon, telling her, “I just need you here. I can do it on my own if I have you here.”

Allison’s last message to Emily read: “You were never going to enter treatment, were you?”

Emily hadn’t meant to lie. It happened like a binge. Everything to the right and left was black. All she could see in front of her was Allison. Until it was over. And Emily sat in front of a blinking cursor in a darkened office, unable to type back, staring at a newspaper headline taped to her monitor: Vermont’s Best Wedding Venues.

So now, even though Emily was cold all the time, even though her ears buzzed and she felt dizzy when she stood up, she knew it was better this way. Mrs. Meter was cleaning out what was left. Soon there would be no more want, no more disappointment. No more chance for her to hurt others. Mrs. Meter promised she could eliminate all desire, and therefore, all badness. She could make everything simple and clean, if only Emily would trust her, let her take the final steps.

#

Emily noticed the soft hairs on that first day in the hospital, her arms limp by her side. The hair covered her arms, colorless and thick. How had she not noticed before? A feeding tube ran from her nose and hooked behind her ears, attached at her cheek with a piece of tape. If Emily was careful to keep her face perfectly still, the tape wouldn’t pull at her skin and she could imagine the tube beside her was blue, not clear, and that it went deep into the woods. It didn’t end in a feeding bag.

But the nurses rudely interrupted her with their inane chatter and their unnecessary questions. Are you comfortable? Do you want the television on? Shall we open the blinds?

Emily made the nurses keep the blinds closed.

Didn’t they know she just wanted to be left alone? Didn’t they know she was almost there? When the nurses interrupted her, she had to start all over again. Close her eyes, still her face, grope along the tubes. The winter woods were quiet. Her footsteps cracked on the frost-stuck leaves. Come with me. She followed the whisper. Please.

“You have a visitor.”

Stop that nonsense, Mrs. Meter scolded.

Emily’s eyes shot open.

“Who is it?”

She had already told them not to allow her mother or sisters. David had sent a card and flowers, but he wrote in the card that he wouldn’t come unless she first said it was okay. Ever David, ever so careful.

“She says she’s your neighbor. Sandra.”

Humf, Mrs. Meter grunted. She’s just coming out of obligation.

“You can let her in.”

The nurse left and Mrs. Meter took advantage of the interlude. Remember the plan. We just play along until you’re discharged. Just stick to the plan.

Sandy was in full uniform: skinny jeans and a purple silk shirt. Her hair was curled, her lips bright red. Yet Emily could tell she was nervous. She talked quickly, telling Emily all about the changes at the farm, how sugaring season was over, and how Harry got a cow in trade for a tractor he refurbished. He was thinking of starting a dairy, but Sandy wasn’t sure, it seemed like a lot of work. “I mean, do I look like a milkmaid to you?”

Emily smiled. It made the tape pull on her cheek.

“Tell Harry thank you,” Emily said.

Sandy reached for Emily’s hand. “How much do you remember?”

“I don’t remember anything,” Emily admitted. “They told me when I woke up that if the neighbor hadn’t found me, I’d be dead.”

“Harry carried you back to the house from the woods. He said you were no heavier than his golf bag.”

Emily thought she heard a choke in Sandy’s voice. It surprised her.

“I don’t remember,” Emily said again. “They told me I must have fainted, low blood pressure or something. I hit my head.”

Sandy squeezed Emily’s hand tighter. Tears brimmed behind her black eyeliner. Her blue eyes were so pale, more like water than sky.

“I don’t know why you were out there in the middle of the night,” she said. “You were covered with sap—in your hair, on your hands. The pails were scattered all around you. I tried to clean you off as best I could. I’m sorry…”

“It’s okay,” Emily said.

“No, I mean, I’m sorry I left like that without telling you personally. I guess I was embarrassed. I did knock though, two different days when I got back from Burlington. I figured you were just too disgusted with me to answer the door. After I showed up drunk. Disgraceful.”

“No,” Emily said. “I wasn’t disgusted at you.”

“Well, I was disgusted at me.”

“I’m small too,” Emily blurted out. “I would never be disgusted by you.” She was thinking of how she lied to Allison. David too, though not in words. But as soon as she said this, she realized how it must have sounded to Sandy.

 “Guess we can both be small people together,” Sandy said, squeezing her hand and adding with a wink, “as a matter of speaking of course.”

Emily laughed, a little spurt that made her lungs hurt and the tape pull again. But it felt good.

There was something between them in that moment. Not what Emily had wanted, not what she had dreamt of. But it was something and it was real.

Make her leave, Mrs. Meter hissed. Now.

Whatever it was, it was enough to tell Mrs. Meter to shut up—however briefly.

“Did you meet her?” Emily asked. “The girl?”

“Yes,” Sandy said. “She wasn’t so bad. But I like you better. I wasn’t expecting you to almost die on me. What would I have done? I’m just a lonely old woman.” Sandy wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “Where’s that scrunchie when you need it?”

“Sorry,” said Emily. “They took it.”

“I brought the cribbage board.” Sandy tried to make her voice sound sunny again. “I thought we could play a game. And as soon as you’re out of these ridiculous tubes, I’ll bring you some real food.”

Emily saw it in front of her. From that moment, her life splitting in two different directions.

About the Author

Priscilla Thompson

Priscilla Thompson works professionally as a psychotherapist and is returning to writing after a break of nearly twenty years. Her first published piece appeared recently in South Carolina Review.

Read more work by Priscilla Thompson .