The whistling of the teakettle was deafening. It reminded her of the passenger trains that regularly departed from the Amtrak station in town. Anonymous people lined up along the platform, waving and blowing kisses to obscured faces pressing against the inner panes of glass. She wished the sound would cease, wanted to scream out for someone to turn the damn burner off or open the kettle spout, but this was not her house. She had no right to make demands of a friend so worthy of the designation. Tanya, selfless as ever, had taken her and Jennie in and given them a place to stay. She couldn’t lash out at her for the whistling of a teakettle. Besides, it would take too much effort. She closed her eyes tightly and slid underneath the water, slipping into the silence of the tub and allowing it to subdue her.
She was standing alone amidst the rubble of a collapsed railway station, watching dumbstruck as a black steam engine began slowly rolling away. The only passenger aboard didn’t press his face against the window or glance in her direction. He just sat there in silent reverie, carrying off her hopes and dreams, riding the rails far away from her, from their life together. She couldn’t make out anything beyond the station’s ruined platform, yet the engine was speeding up, as though it knew where it was headed, as though a destination awaited it out there in that dark oblivion. The train accelerated, its rhythmic thud echoing the one in her chest.
Upon surfacing, the consistent thud evolved to a knock. “Em, are you okay? Em? I made you some tea. It’s chamomile.” Emmaline didn’t respond. She merely stared in the direction of Tanya’s voice, the question reverberating in her head. Are you okay? Are you okay? Oh my God! Todd! Are you okay?
The traffic had been at a complete standstill. Red taillights lit up the night, like hundreds of angry eyes glaring at her. Occasionally, her body tensed and her heart froze as the screech of tires on asphalt rent through the night. She had little sympathy for morons who waited until the last second
to brake, who had plenty of warning to slow down and join the endless parade of sleeping engines.
She had spent the time surfing radio channels, cleaning out her glove compartment, and hoping her gas needle wouldn’t dip too much lower before she could get to a station. The traffic idled and crawled, idled and crawled. Her head began to ache from the reflection of the headlights in her side-view mirror. After a while, she called Todd and left him a voice mail asking him to order take-out, preferably Chinese–a lot of Chinese: spring rolls, crab rangoons, deep-frind wontons–all of it!
Forty minutes later, she crested the hill and colors swirled in her vision: red, blue, yellow, white. Emergency vehicles were everywhere. Dozens of turn signals blinked, out of tandem, ahead. She felt a small flash of relief that she was in the correct lane, that she would have a slight edge over others to get home to her family. It had been a selfish thought; one that disappeared quickly as she pulled alongside the accident. She easily recognized what was left of Todd’s car, thanks to the unusual bumper sticker featuring three rubber duckies. It had been a gift from the girls. They had each painted an outfit on one of the ducks: goofy hats, odd outfits, and sparkling jewelry. It was one of a kind. Unmistakable.
In one of those moments when our sense of invincibility surfaces, she had jerked the car off the road, slammed on the brakes and crossed through the turtled traffic. Two emergency crewmen were yelling obscene warnings as she ran toward the wreckage. They swiftly picked her up between them and began carrying her far away from the accident. She kicked violently, screaming and cursing, choking and begging. She had to see her husband. She had to know what was happening. Did she still have a husband? Was he dead? Broken? She could picture him lying on the pavement, twisted and mangled. She needed to see the truth. They had to let her see what was happening. Why weren’t they letting her in?
“Emmaline, please! Can I come in?”
A reflection materialized in the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door. Eyes: dark, puffy, and swollen. Hair: drenched, making it dark and straight, so unlike her usual dirty-blond, curly hair, clinging to milky white skin. Her own reflection, yet it was so unrecognizable. “Oh, um, yeah,” she dried her face with a washcloth. “Yeah, you can come in.”
Tanya came in carrying a wooden tray. “Here, I brought you some tea.” Tanya didn’t immediately release the mug.
“I’ve got it,” and despite her shaky hands, Tanya finally let go.
“How’s the bubble bath? Are you feeling better?”
“Better?” A simple question, but was she? “I don’t know.” But she did know. “No.”
“Oh, Em.” Tanya pulled up a stool and began caressing her hair. “I wish I knew what to say.”
“Everything. Lost.” She took a deep breath, inhaling the calming chamomile aroma before taking a careful sip of the steaming tea. “I just wish I could understand.”
But she didn’t understand. She kept replaying it all in her mind. She had been blatantly honest with him from the beginning, thanks to a lesson she had learned long ago. Shortly after they began dating, she had disclosed some of the more painful parts of her past.
They had been eating lunch in the courtyard of their office building when Todd had invited her and Jennie over for a barbeque. To her, this had meant it was time for disclosure. She didn’t want Jennie getting too attached to Todd until she knew how he felt about her situation. She glanced around the courtyard, ensuring their privacy. Laying down her fork, she said, “Look, Todd. I’ve really enjoyed spending time you, but before we start introducing our families, there is something I need to tell you.”
Feeling the gravity in her voice, he laid down his own fork and wiped his mouth. Then, he interlaced his fingers, propped his elbows on the tabletop, and leaned forward. With a slight nod, he rested his mouth against his hands and waited for her to continue.
“Well, you already know that I raised Jennie on my own because my boyfriend disappeared shortly after she was born. What you don’t know is that his leaving wasn’t about him not wanting to be a father.” She took a deep breath, searched for the words to continue, and glanced around the courtyard, again. “Well, a while back, you told me that, before your wife died, you had been hoping to have more kids. Jennie’s father wanted the same thing. He left because I can’t have any more children. I am ‘damaged goods,’ as he put it.”
Todd’s face looked as though he was wincing, but no sound escaped him. She wasn’t sure if he was wincing because she couldn’t have children or because of the words she had used. Once, she had lived in shame and embarrassment because of her hysterectomy. Now, she had simply grown tired. She was tired of having to dredge up her past, but mostly, she was tired of the way men acted when they found out. It was like she was telling them she was a murderer or something. They looked at her differently, if they looked at her at all. Any flirting immediately ceased and some even outright avoided her. Watching him closely, she continued. “So, anyway, I just thought you should know. And, trust me; I’ll understand if you want to just be friends from now on.” If you can manage just being friends.
But Todd had surprised her. He had said it didn’t matter, that he was happy with his daughters and no longer really wanted to start all over with a new baby. “Plus,” he had added, “if it works out between us, I’ll gain a stepdaughter, too.” He had promised it would be enough for him. So, before he left her alone in the elevator, she accepted his invitation to the barbecue.
That weekend she and Jennie had gone to Todd’s barbecue, where they met Jill and Tammy. Todd had set up three tents in his backyard, but by the end of the night only two of them were needed. The girls, instantly friends, had piled into a single tent. Peeking in at them, Emmaline couldn’t help but smile. She would never forget that first sight of them all curled up together: Jennie, age 6, sleeping contentedly although she was crammed in between her future stepsisters: Tammy, age 8, and Jill, age 7.
Six years later, house full of teenage girls, her worst nightmares had come true for the second time in a matter of months. A simple declaration, really: You’re not enough, I’m leaving you. Six years together and he was leaving. Three months out of the hospital and he was leaving. She had spent every day at that hospital with him, full of tears and prayers. And despite it all, he was leaving. He wanted a son, an heir to his nonexistent throne, the next king of the James’ auto shop legacy and, well, she couldn’t give it to him. It was as simple as that.
“That’s cold, Todd. You know I would give you a son if I could,” she had sobbed as he threw another T-shirt into the suitcase that was lying on the bed. “You don’t think I wanted to have more children? That I wanted to have a hysterectomy at twenty-four.”
“I know that’s not what you wanted, but this really isn’t about you. I need this.” He sighed deeply, allowing his eyes to close while he rubbed his temple. “I can’t talk about this anymore. I’m sorry.” He turned toward the door, which forced him to look in her direction. The lack of emotion on his face shocked her.
“You’re sorry?” she gasped. He deftly stepped past her and began walking down the hallway. She stood rooted in place, confused. “But … but I was honest with you. I told you up front and you told me, no, you promised me, that it didn’t matter.” She finally turned and followed. She stopped in the doorway of the bathroom, hoping to block his retreat. “You said my love and the girls’ love was all you would ever need. I guess it was your promise that didn’t matter.”
“Uh-huh,” he said, absentmindedly. He was digging through the third drawer down. “You know I … will always … love you … in some way. Need … son.” She could tell he had already been through the top two drawers and the medicine cabinet, as they all stood ajar. He was hastily pitching items into a plastic grocery sack: shaving cream, razor, cologne, toothpaste, and toothbrush. “Can we please stop talking about this? I’ve made up my mind.”
As she watched the bag swelling up with his belongings, her throat began to constrict. She struggled to hold back her tears. “Where is this coming
from? Is this about the accident? Look, I know it was a close one, but–”
He spun around, “Damn right it’s about the accident.” As he moved towards her, all thoughts of holding her ground dissipated. She stepped aside demurely and, once again, began trailing him through the house. “I can’t really explain it, but it sort of, well, it sort of woke me up. I realized I had always wanted a son, an heir.”
“An heir?” she shouted at his back. “You have heirs; they just happen to be female. For God’s sake, Todd, Tammy knows more about cars than most of the boys I’ve ever met. And Jill could already run the business, probably better than you. Plus, what about Jennie? After six years you’re going to abandon her just like her birth father did? Don’t the three of them mean anything to you?”
He threw the plastic bag on top of his clothes. “Just stop okay; it’s not like that.”
“It’s exactly like that.”
“No, it’s not,” he said, closing the suitcase. “I still love ALL of my daughters. I just want to have a son, too! Is that so much to ask?”
“Of course not, but why does it have to mean the end of us?” She dared to put her hand upon his shoulder. “Remember all the options we discussed? What about adop … ”
“No.” He shrugged off her touch and began zipping his suitcase. “We’ve been over this. I want it to be MY son. MINE. My DNA.”
“What about … ”
He snatched up the suitcase and spun around. “NOR will I have him made in some damn petri dish or pay some stranger to carry him. I just won’t. It’s not happening.”
“Well, how nice it must be to have options! So many, in fact, that you can exclude all of the options that keep your family together and still get what you want. I will never be able to have another child, but I’ve been willing to stand by you.” She saw his eyes soften as she continued. “I’ve been willing to choose alternative routes to keep you in my life, but you won’t do the same for me.”
Eyes downcast, he gently grabbed her hand. “Look, I really am sorry, Em, but this is just too important. I will always love you, but I need someone
who can give me this.” He dropped her hand. “Look, it’s late. I’ll take the couch. Goodnight, Em.” The resignation in his voice made her realize that following him would be useless.
“Fuck you, Todd,” she whispered to his fading silhouette before sinking onto the bed.
Yet the next day she had prepared to fight for him, again. She followed his figure through the house, pleading with a bobbing mound of hair and broad shoulder blades. She weaved past the hand-crafted china cabinet they had commissioned her brother to make for them and around the refurbished coffee table with the fleur de lis engraving. Every time she tried to reach for him, he was suddenly farther away, as if this despair was inevitable.
“I’ll be gone for a week. Tammy and Jill are with my mother. Just drop the key through the mail slot when you’re done moving out.”
She was blinded for a brief instant as he opened the front door and the sunlight flooded in. The sun is still shining? He walked out the door. She raced toward him. His arm swished behind him and a teal green sea inundated her vision. She halted, sobbing, and rested her head on the door, drowning in its ocean, allowing the last words he had said to her to pull her farther and farther under.
She had still been floundering in that water when Tanya had found her. And though she could now hear Tanya’s voice, reassuring and loving, she was still sinking.
“You haven’t lost everything. You have great daughters, friends, people who will always be there for you. You and Jennie can stay here as long as you need. Please, let our love help diminish your pain. You deserve to be happy. It won’t be easy, but one day I promise you will be happy again. Please believe that, Em. We love you. ”
Love. She had been told once that love always won. Not today, though. Today, love had stowed away on a black steam engine. Today, she had stood on a station platform surrounded by destruction. That destruction’s name? Pain. No, she could not leave this dark place. At least not today.