(originally published in this chapbook collection)
The first photograph is the wife, alone and laughing, her arms spread wide and her belly exposed. The shadows, the strict blacks and whites, make her belly seem both unearthly and yet the most normal thing in the world. She wears a black cardigan and a white t-shirt, pushed up to show the luminous skin of her stomach. Beneath that skin, the baby waits. Dancing, perhaps. Or chasing dreams, lulled to sleep by the rhythms of the wife’s heart, her laughter.
The student cradles the picture in her hands. Then she smiles at the wife. “It’s beautiful,” is what she says.
The wife shrugs, self-conscious. “It didn’t feel beautiful, at the time.” It is almost an apology. “I’m still surprised it doesn’t show. You try standing half-naked in front of a photographer and see if you can keep smiling.”
The student laughs. The next picture shows the wife in mid-twirl, caught in blurry, frozen motion. Her sweater billows out, now black, now grey, now almost translucent. Because of the shadows, one cannot be quite sure if she is laughing. Those could be tears, one might think. Perhaps.
Now the baby begins the cry. The student and the wife both blink. A construction drill starts up somewhere outside. The wife excuses herself, and leaves the student alone with the pictures. She walks up the stairs and turns into the baby’s room. The baby has been ill, feverish. Her green eyes are too bright and her cries are angry, harsh with pain. She leans into the wife’s arms with an odd, desperate inevitability. But her cries stop when her head is soft against the wife’s own.
The baby. The baby belongs to the wife, and to the husband. She is theirs.
The husband had asked the wife in June, over dinner preparations. “Do you think,” he’d said, “that it would be all right for Ava to stay with us for a while?”
She hadn’t understood. “Ava?”
“L’Heureux,” he said. “You remember.”
Of course she remembered. She picked up the pan, drained the water into the sink. “Isn’t she in school now?”
“She changed her mind,” he said. His eyes were green, like the baby’s. “Now she’s moving out here.”
“She’s moving to London,” he said. “I told her she could stay with us until she was settled.” He did that, the husband. Made decisions. Ordered take-out when there was chicken on the counter, took the baby around the city when it was time for her nap. Yesterday he told the wife that her soul was getting old.
The wife stood, holding the pot in the air. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t have to decide right now,” he said. He took the pot from her and began to spoon the noodles out. “She won’t be moving until the end of the summer. Think about it – but there’s no pressure.”
The husband has a picture of the student on his desk. Well, a picture of the entire year. Graduating class of 1995. All two hundred graduates gathered outside, caps and gowns and all. The husband stands on the left, with the other faculty. The faces are small and he is almost lost, but not quite.
The student stands on the other side of the grass. Ava with the red hair, who is supposed to be in Australia. More school, studying design – but apparently she didn’t like it. And now she is coming to London, to live with the three of them. Until she’s settled, says the husband. Whatever that means.
The wife buys a new duvet for the spare room, because the blankets are ratty and embarrassing. Then she decides to buy sheets as well, sheets to match the duvet. The husband laughs.
“Should we paint the room?” he teases. “The walls don’t match the bed.”
The duvet is brown. Light brown and green. The student, tucked in, will be like a flamingo tulip flush against the ground. The walls of the bedroom are beige. The wife will ask the student’s opinion when she comes. The husband, despite his teasing, is useless when it comes to these kinds of things.
The student arrives at night, flying into Heathrow on a dusky September evening. The husband has mastered the art of driving on the left side of the road and goes to pick her up. The wife stays home with the baby, and when they come back, the guest room is ready.
Ava has two bags, only two, and is paler than the wife remembers. Still, something in the house changes as soon as she walks in.
“Ava,” says the wife. She risks a hug, the students’ shoulder blades defined and strong beneath her hands. When she pulls away, the student is smiling. She looks very tired. She has a winter coat and two scarves – one of them belongs to the husband. The wife takes the coat and the scarves and watches the student shiver in the hallway. When they take Ava up to her room, the wife nudges the thermostat up. She’ll have to buy more blankets.
In the middle of that night, the wife wakes, turns, and makes love to the husband in the dark. She touches his face, and then the skin over his collarbone, and he is so warm she cries aloud in surprise.
The husband’s fingers touch her mouth. His voice in her ear. “Shh,” he says. “Ava’s upstairs.”
The student. Shivering under the new duvet. The wife turns her head, and bites the husband’s fingers. Hard. Then she turns over, and there is blood in her mouth and the taste of skin between her teeth.
They give the student a spare key, and tell her to come and go when she wants.
“It’s your home now,” says the husband, the morning after her arrival. “So don’t ask permission. For anything.”
The wife spoons food into the mouth of the baby and nods her assent. She watches the student approach the counter, still in pyjamas. She is cautious, unsure, even after the go-ahead. Her pyjamas are silk, blue and lavendar. The colours wash her out. Her breasts are faint round suggestions beneath the silk.
The wife stops, spoon halfway in the air, and watches Ava stretch out a hand, pick an orange. Her fingers dig deep into the flesh of the fruit and come up stained, pulp hiding in the crevices between nail and skin. She throws away the peel and leaves the orange sitting vulnerable and raw on the counter. Then she raises a hand to her mouth and sucks the juice from her fingers, quickly, like she’s ashamed.
“Do you have any plans for the day?” the wife asks, looking away. “Is there anything we can take you to see?”
“Ava and I are going for coffee,” says the husband. He winks at the student from across the table. “So she can shock me with her wild tales of Australia.”
“Oh,” says the wife.
The student laughs. She inches closer to the husband’s side of the table. ‘They weren’t that wild. Or that shocking.”
“Come now,” says the husband. “You can shock me. I won’t tell.”
Now she shrugs, suddenly quiet. “It really wasn’t special. Time for new stories.” Then she leaves, goes back upstairs.
The husband’s shrug, in response to the wife’s raised eyebrows, is half nonchalant, half apologetic. “Jet lag? She’s not usually like that.”
The wife shrugs back. “I know.” But does she? Does she really?
When Ava comes back down, the breakfast dishes are done and put away. She is dressed and ready, the scarf dark against the brightness of her hair. The husband will not lose her in a crowd, the wife thinks. He’s always had it, this thing for redheads.
The wife is dark, like the husband, like the baby. Dark but pale, the skin over her stomach mottled with stretch marks. The student’s stomach, no doubt, will still be soft and taut. When they walk the streets of Hampstead, the student and the husband will look like some kind of expedition, dark explorer and his flame-haired foreign prize.
The wife thinks about inviting herself along, bringing the baby. Instead she takes the baby to the park, and they stop at the home store on the way back, and buy more blankets.
To get to their house, you take the Northern line to Golders Green. Then you turn up North End Way, and ignore the vendors. Kindly, with a smile – that calmly aloof politeness which seems effortless to the natives but took the wife nearly half a year to perfect.
Then you walk up the street, past the shops, through the park pedestrian bypass. It’s a pretty park in the daytime, but not such a nice place at night. The husband tells the student to take a cab from the station.
Their house is down the first right after the park. Number fifty-three, shining yellow brass on the door. The wife wants to change the brass to sandstone, something that can hide amongst the growing chaos of the garden. But the husband disagrees.
“I like the brass,” he says. “It has character, like the house.”
Almost all of the houses on their street have brass nameplates. But the wife does not point this out. Instead, she shops at the flea markets, brings home this painting, that curio, bits and bobs, as they say. An oversized picnic table that sits in their dining room, the wood dark cherry, the initials NM & DV scratched into one corner. A piano that sits in the third floor sitting room – the wife got it for free. One day, she’d like the daughter to play.
The husband hates the piano. Or not hates so much as mildly dislikes. This is because the piano sits where the hi-fi stereo was going to go, but the wife got there first. So there. The husband contents himself with derisive snorts in the sitting room and vague threats about a hi-fi next to the bed.
But Ava plays the piano. The wife discovers this on the third day of the student’s visit, when the husband is at work. She is in the kitchen when she hears the strains of Chopin, and she is up the stairs and in the sitting room almost before she realizes it. She steps in, silently, and watches the student. Her fingers caress the keys, now quick, now slow, hard and soft, like a lover. She isn’t wearing her scarf, and her shoulder curls inwards and then elongates as she moves her body in time to the music.
The wife stands, watching. The notes rise up and dance in the air, now slow, now fast, crescendo, higher, faster, there, there, and then a cascade of falling notes, so fast she can barely see the student’s fingers, a mistake, almost, not quite, down, down, a supernova, and then back down to the quiet.
The wife leaves before the student can see her in the doorway. There is a pulse in her abdomen, her own little explosion of stars. She holds the railing for balance as she walks down the stairs.
One night, a few days later, they leave the baby with a sitter and take the student out to dinner. They order dolmathes and olives and sit outside – it is warm enough for the student, even without her scarf.
They talk about London, about family back home, about Ava’s year in Australia.
“I loved it,” the student says. “I did. But it wasn’t …” and she waves a hand. “You know?”
“It’s never all you expect it to be,” says the husband. He holds the wife’s hand under the table, strokes his thumb across her palm. He wants the student to go back to school. Yesterday, he told the wife he’s afraid the student will stay, and settle, and marry an English man.
Little early for that, don’t you think? The wife had said, annoyed. She herself couldn’t find British men attractive. The student, she was sure, had more sense. The student liked nice teeth.
“I know about expectations,” the student says now. She looks at the husband, then the wife. Her eyes are such a strange colour – so light a brown as to be almost gold. She is a paler version of the National Geographic child, that famous portrait from all those years ago. Then she shrugs, and she is once more just another person who doesn’t know what to do. “Maybe this will fit.”
“Maybe,” echoes the wife. She orders them a round of ouzo and they toast. “Here’s to the unknown.”
That night, as they undress for bed, the wife brings it up.
“Maybe we should help Ava find a place.”
“She’s looking for work,” says the husband. “Wait until she finds something.”
“Plenty of people look for both at once,” the wife says. She climbs into the bed and fluffs the pillows. The husband has one pillow, a long body one that he always ends up hugging. The wife has four pillows, and she uses them all.
“Ava’s in a tough spot,” says the husband. “I told her we’d support her. You want me to take that away?”
“Fine,” says the wife. “Never mind.” She turns over, wiggles her toes beneath the sheet.
“And anyway, Laura,” the husband says, “at least the piano’s getting played.”
The wife imagines love letters. One day, at the library, she checks out a little grey book of ee cummings. Variations on I love you, I want you to do this and this and this to me.
When the wife was in grad school, back in the days of academic editing, the husband wrote her a poem. He tucked it into her hand after an exam.
I like the way
your hair falls
and your hands
travelling away from the flower
The wife wore flowers in her hair at the wedding because of this poem.
The husband does not write anymore – or if he does, he doesn’t write for the wife. Perhaps he gives poems to other students now. The wife leaves the ee cummings on her nightstand anyway. Just a reminder.
That day, the wife stops in Ava’s room and asks her about the feature wall in the room. Green, Ava says. She offers to help with the painting.
“I can do it,” says the wife. “Unless you’d like to come and pick out the colour?”
“Seth is home early today,” the student says. She wears a blue sweater today, long-sleeved, tight across the chest. Jumper. They call them jumpers here.
“Home early?” The wife is in white, as usual.
“We’re apartment hunting,” the student says. She looks at her nails, the floorboards, the bed. “Seth said he’d take me.”
“Oh.” The wife runs her hands over the duvet.
“It might take a while,” says Ava. As though the wife doesn’t already know. “I don’t want you to think I’m ungrateful.”
The wife is the opposite of ungrateful. “It’s fine,” she says. “Really.”
Later, when the husband and the student are gone, the wife goes into the sitting room and sits at the piano. Years ago, she wrote love letters to the husband because she couldn’t write poetry. Years ago, when he was her teacher and she was just another student, scarves bright against the darkness of her hair.
Now, she has no idea where the letters are. She imagines them hiding, tied somewhere with shoelace. An outpouring of something, reduced to words on a page. How sad.
The husband and the wife are both in the last picture. The husband stands behind the wife, smiling, his eyes closed, his nose half-buried in her hair. The wife’s head is tilted back, her eyes also closed. A private picture, this one. It is the wife’s favourite.
The student says nothing. Her eyes are impassive, her smile benign. She moves to the next picture perhaps a little faster than the others, but that’s it.
The wife, with the baby in her lap, feels a faint tug of disappointment. Something waits inside of her, her very own supernova, crescendo, explosion. If she went to the piano right now, something would come out of her and sing on the keys.
“I like this one,” says the student. She points to a picture of the husband and the wife, facing each other.
The wife looks over, shifts the baby. “Yes,” she says. “So do I.”
The student smiles – a half-smile, a grimace, the wife can’t be sure. Her cheeks are flushed and her eyes are bright like the baby’s. She flicks to the last picture. A sideways shot, close-up on the wife’s stomach. The husband leans forward, his lips pressed to the skin just above her navel.
“This one,” the student says, and her voice shakes the tiniest, infinitesimal bit. “This is beautiful.”
“Isn’t it?” says the wife.
The student looks up. “Laura,” she says.
“Yes.” She looks the student in the eye this time. It’s been so long. Yes.
“I don’t want to go. I can’t.”
“I know,” says the wife, and she lays her thumb against Ava’s cheekbone. Feverish, yes. And smooth, like she remembers. The student shakes beneath her hand. Then the wife raises her hand, and the shaking stops.
“You have to leave,” she says. She thinks of the husband, oblivious at work. And as Ava nods, denial and acceptance all at once, something ignites in the wife’s solar plexus, a shockwave, stars that skitter their way through her veins. Then, as always, there is the fading, an ebbing of the rush, and a curious blankness, as she begins to wonder what the house will be like when Ava isn’t there.