Drawing a deliberate breath Liz takes my hand. Seeking relief from winter’s cold we huddle close, her labored breathing warming the base of my neck. We rest in each other’s arms the way the young and in love collapse into an easy tangle; before the passage of time stakes a claim on the space between. Outside our huddle the world groans and shivers. And reminding us of our current state, the scent of mildew, of rotting timber, gently asserts itself. Moments march toward an unknown future as Liz’s chest rises then falls in time to labored breathing.
Drawing her close, I raise my chin to rub weekend whiskers against silky black hair. Sometimes she protests such a gesture. This morning, however, she does not. As if fueled by an inner well, that black hair pours forth in tumbles before collecting across broad shoulders capable of bearing the weight of unrealized dreams. And with dreams tapping fingers just beyond our reach, I latch onto a strand of silky hair. Idly, I curl soft tips around a twirling index finger.
To our rear cold winds whine as they rush to places unknown. And closing my eyes in expectation I feel a sea of uncertainty swell, buffeting my wife, our yet to be born child and me as we attempt to navigate toward a distant star.
The wind’s howl startles Liz and she withdraws from my embrace. Strands of reaching hair cling stubbornly to still black whiskers, refusing to let go and momentarily binding us together.
Wiping the lingering strands away Liz looks up and feigns a smile.
I stroke her hair. “Did you sleep OK?”
She nods in the affirmative before yielding to a shrug. She’d prefer not to admit fatigue.
But I know.
She’s tired; tired of trying, tired of pursuing a dream just out of reach, tired of sacrificing anything and everything that can be sacrificed.
My gaze drifts to her swollen belly, rising and falling under a favorite Syracuse sweatshirt. Soon we’ll have a baby. And I’ll be a father. For six months this thought has sustained me. For six months the baby, growing within, has tapped Liz physically. And for years the dream, looming without, has tapped Liz emotionally.
She won’t say so but she’s tired.
Pushing away the smell of decaying wood I draw comfort from the shampooed scent of my wife’s hair. As she eyes me I nod an empathetic nod.
Behind us, winter’s crisp breeze snaps a taut sheet of plastic to attention; a sail pushing us toward that distant star. Our little world shakes and shutters. And chilled by the drumbeat of wind we drift alone along time’s impassive currents.
Liz shivers. From behind the plastic snaps once more.
So am I.
I pull her close and, tightening my grip, kiss the top of her head, lingering against black hair and luxuriating in her scent.
She places a hand on swollen belly and stares ahead, or perhaps behind; I cannot tell.
With so much of her future relegated to the world of the unknown it’s hard to remain optimistic.
She tries. But’s it’s hard.
She asks the passing winds, “What am I going to do?”
And filling the gap left by winds’ lacking response I weigh in, answering a question she did not ask. “You’re gonna be a great mom, that’s what you’re gonna do. I mean think about it. How crazy is that? In just…”
She interrupts my too-chipper chime. “No, Beasley. I mean about school. What if…”
I return her interruption. “Look Liz, you’ve done everything you can and more; a lot more. So, come on, don’t worry about that. I mean, it’ll all work out.”
She scoffs at my canned enthusiasm. “You’re kidding right? ‘Don’t worry’? Is that what you just said?”
“No, Liz, I mean…”
With her left hand she waives me off.
She’s not hearing it; not today.
Over our shoulders a sliver of winter light peeks through our plastic covered window. Tacking towards the light I plunge forward, doubling down with optimism. “Liz, have you thought of what sorta doctor you’d wanna be? You know, when you get in.”
As if electrocuted Liz jerks away. She glares. Eyes narrow as her brow creases. “Let’s be realistic. It’s ‘if’, not when, Beasley. ‘If’. So stop it already. I don’t want to talk about what might be or what might have been until I get to where I’m going.”
She looks away before continuing. “And talking about it like it’s gonna magically happen doesn’t help. So just stop.”
She pushes off, leaving a void in her wake. Sensing opportunity cold air moves quickly to fill the fissure, collecting and assuming control of territory recently occupied by husband and wife, recently occupied by the young and in love.
Across the cold chasm Liz begins to seethe.
As I stumble for words she marches on, “It’s easy for you to say. You’ve already got your education. You’ve got your career. I mean think about it, Beasley. I went to night school while working full time to bang out my science requirements. Then what? Then I gave up my job – my career – and took a $60,000 pay cut to work at that pharmacy while finishing my premeds; all to get ‘medical field’ experience that might help me get ready for medical school, might help me on my apps.”
She blinks slowly before continuing to tally the price of dreams.
“I cashed out my entire 401k; all of it. I even sold my car – my Jetta – to cover the cost of my masters degree. All for one thing; to get into medical school and become a 1doctor.”
Interrogating more herself than me she proceeds with her line of inquiry. “And now what? What happens next? I mean, think about it. While I’m pregnant I’m making calls for Working Assets, selling phone services to help pay the bills while I wait for what? Rejection letters? ‘Thanks but no thanks but your dream hasn’t been accepted’ notifications? Huh, Beasley? What’s next for me?”
Selfishly I bristle at my exclusion from the tally.
“For us, Liz. You mean what’s next for us.”
With great effort she folds slender arms across her blossoming stomach. She works to control her breathing as a swollen belly and the pursuit of distant dreams conspire to leave her short of breath.
I repeat myself. “Us.”
She falls back and sighs, resentful of the final tally.
“Liz, I know I can’t even begin to understand how hard this is. I get that. But, think about everything you’ve done. I mean, you put yourself out there. You went all in; in pursuit of a dream.”
My voice rises. “And you know what Liz? You’re right. For most people it’s ‘if’ not ‘when’ because not too many people on this planet get to see their fucking dreams come true. And you know why, Liz? Huh? I’ll tell you why. Because most of those fucking people don’t have what you have. They don’t have your focus, your drive. And they aren’t willing to sacrifice everything –and I mean everything – like you did. All your hard work and all of this (I waive my arm across the expanse of our mildew smelling apartment) will pay off. I know it.”
My words fall short, casting nothing more than a diffused light.
As if disgusted she looks away.
From all around, the currents of time hegemonically whittle away at my wife’s potential future.
And knowing I’m unable to help the one I wish to help most I boil with a desire to smash something; a chair, a lamp, a table, a barrier to a dream.
But I hold it in.
“Fuck it,” I say below my breath.
And pushing off the living room coach – a futon really – I leave Liz alone on the life raft of her dreams. I take a step toward a kitchen squeezed into the back corner of an 800 square foot apartment. The kitchen, like the apartment’s current mood, is shrouded in shadows. It smells of leaking water.
Silence couples with shadows and groaning winds to cast a specter over our home.
Before exiting the living room I stop and turn left, resentful of the specter’s dominance of our home. Approaching the stereo I flip through a stack of CDs, snapping the plastic jewel cases sharply against each other before finding the music I seek. I slip a disc into the CD player and jab a button repeatedly until the movement I seek is cued up.
The stereo hums and beeps before offering up the selected song. And, turning to look over my shoulder, my gaze falls upon Liz as she stares through the plastic sheet covering the window behind our lumpy futon. The sail of plastic drifts to and fro, laboring to breath under a wintery world of clouds.
On the other side of the window, storm clouds tumble past our apartment blocking an eager sun. Refusing to quit the fight, sunbeams grope for access to a world below as they throw slivers of light between greedy clouds.
And darting past heaving clouds slices of defused sunlight battle their way toward earth before seeping through a milky sheet of plastic to fall upon Liz.
I watch as shadows and light alternate in a battle of wills across her face.
Uncaring shadows deflect and scatter the lancing light in a fight for dominance over how to frame my wife, my friend, my partner. The one I admire most. Light though, fights back, skipping and dancing in a search of advantage around her profile.
Then, momentarily, Liz’s profile shimmers, backlit by a victorious beam of white.
And she glows.
I try to speak but find myself frozen in a moment still visible today.
Then, as winds take pause from their onslaught, the strings of Vivaldi leap from the stereo. Just out of reach, the woman of my dreams is engulfed in a battle of shadows and light and now the wailing sounds of transition as she balances on the razor-sharp edge of a future unknown.
Before me, she teeters.
And finding my voice I whisper, ‘Don’t fall, Liz. Please, don’t fall.’
Unaware of my plea she stares ahead, as if waiting to see which way her battle will tilt; forward into a future of dreams or over the edge, into darkness unknown.
Alone she battles. Alone she balances, hoping not to fall.
‘Think of the future,’ I mumble.
After years pursuing such a distant dream I know of what she thinks.
Perhaps she thinks of exhaustion as she fights the shadows’ mighty blows. Here, in our modest living room, I watch as the most recent salvo of blows falls upon her brow.
‘How much longer can you hold on?’ I wonder.
Despite the efforts of light and the beauty of her glow and the glory of Vivaldi’s cascading notes I feel myself break as I stare at Liz, considering the weight she alone must bear.
Oh, I don’t want her to bear it alone.
I try to be supportive.
This is a fight to be won by her will, by her perseverance and by her abilities to change the course of one’s own future.
Me? I’m left to root her on, her biggest fan relegated to the sidelines as the contest rages toward an exhausted conclusion.
So I stand here quietly and wait for the breathtaking notes of Vivaldi’s winter season to catch her attention. I’m overtaken as the sounds shove aside clouds, shadows and maybe even the weight of despair. Our little apartment blooms as strings soar and wail their longing for spring’s cresting bloom.
Liz though, is unmoved. She stares ahead, lost in thought.
Lost in battle.
Incrementally I goose the volume until Liz turns her attention to me. And offering her my smile she reflexively smiles in return. Her smile takes root, finding a comfortable resting place between us.
Then, on a whim and without warning, I jump. As Vivaldi serenades us, I leap high into the air, landing with a thud in the middle of our living room. Glassware rattles. And spastically, I begin to dance across the little room, mimicking the steps I imagine a lithe ballerina might deliver in response to the call of Vivaldi’s coldest season. Woefully lacking dance skills make themselves apparent as my 6’2” overweight frame staggers to and fro. The floor pounds as I leap and land without pause.
Liz covers her mouth. Eyebrows arch high over bulging brown eyes. Like a sphinx she tracks my progress (or lack thereof) as I begin my third circuit around the room. I keep at it until she bursts out laughing; leaning forward to crowd her belly and wave long arms in surrender.
“Stop it! Oh my God, you’re awful! I mean it; you’re embarrassing me.”
Feigning indignation, no horror, at my wife’s reaction I lurch to a halt.
Behind me Vivaldi slows the pace to a cautious walk through winter’s darkest passage. In turn I deliver a final pirouette, losing my balance and almost falling into the stereo. Satisfied with my performance, I offer a graceful bow.
Mouth agape Liz stares as I justify my actions.
“Liz, I dance because I can’t help myself. You make me dance. I mean, you make me so happy, so proud, that I just have to dance.”
Ever so slowly she shakes her head.
I continue, “And besides, there’s no one here to be embarrassed in front of, right? I mean don’t you need someone else to see you in order to be embarrassed?”
Dramatically, I look around the living room before peeking into the dining room in mock-investigation. Upon finding no one, I nod thoughtfully. “See, just me, you and our little baby in there. And I don’t think she can see a thing out here!”
Liz rolls her eyes. “I’m embarrassed for you! And please, whatever you do, don’t let our child ever see you dance like that. I beg you!”
Creases take their leave from brows on either side of the living room. Vivaldi’s pace picks up as the wails of violins and cellos (I’m guessing they’re cellos) fill the space between. As if surprised by the swell of music I begin to tap my foot, hillbilly style.
Again, she shakes her head, this time spreading her smile wide.
I wag my finger. “Seasons change, ya know.”
Exiting toward the back of the apartment I make my way through the dining room toward the kitchen. “You want some hot chocolate? Maybe some tea?”
She nods her head in the affirmative and mouths the word ‘tea’ before looking away and rubbing her belly.
“I’ll get you some Chamomile.”
I start a pot of coffee and put the kettle on. Cold air pours past the outer edges of plastic stapled to the kitchen’s window sill while under the kitchen’s linoleum floor moist wood rots. The scent, though, is soon nudged aside by brewing coffee.
Waiting for water to boil I cross my arms and look through a plastic covered window to a backyard blanketed by drifts of grey snow, lifeless feathers, gobs of pigeon droppings and leaden light.
The kettle’s scream drowns out Vivaldi.
For its part the coffee maker minds its time, dripping slowly and silently.
Steeping Liz’s tea, I add some honey and place a circle of crackers around the saucer before bringing the offering to Liz.
Ignoring me or simply not noticing my approach Liz rests her head on the back of the futon. Eyes closed, she faces the ceiling. Her belly seems to float under her sweatshirt’s orange banner. Methodically she rubs her swollen body, comforting the child within.
She looks not so much tired, but drained. Drained from trying, drained from changing her life and drained from pursuing the chimera of a career in medicine.
Eyebrows buckle as I silently place the tea and crackers on the room’s homemade coffee table. Without opening her eyes she sighs, her long breath disturbing a resting world of dust above her head.
From the left, I hear the floor of the front porch heave, as if disturbed by an interloper. Looking from Liz to the hallway leading to the front door and back to Liz I see she’s not heard the murmurs of activity upon our porch. And backing out of the living room I leave Liz on the futon, drained and depleted.
Making my way to the end of the front hallway I pull back a yellowed lace curtain to peer through the door’s window in search of the postman’s telltale footprints.
Each morning the postman adds to the tally, marking a day along Liz’s journey. So far, each day he has delivered either no news or bad news.
And each day no news or bad news takes its toll on Liz.
Leaning forward I rest my forehead against the front door’s pane of glass.
And as if engulfed by a liquid breeze I shiver. Cold pours through me.
There, in the snow outside our apartment’s front door is a single set of footprints. I grow confused as the footsteps do not lead up the porch stairs toward our door before returning back down the stairs. The footsteps go one way; leaving from our door down the stairs to the sidewalk; as if someone has left our apartment on a one way journey into the future.
“Huh?” I ask myself. “What the …”
Liz yells from the living room. “Thanks for the tea. Hey, are you coming back in here?”
I lie, as I don’t yet wish to speak of the mail.
“Just checking the snowfall. It’s really beautiful; sparkling and all white. You can’t really tell from the living room ‘cause of that stupid plastic.” I hesitate. “Maybe after your tea we can go for a walk to Davis Square if you’re up for it.”
Vivaldi washes out her response as I attempt to open the front door without a sound. My effort falls short as the pull of the inner wooden door sucks the outer storm door forward with a metallic slap.
Liz raises her voice. “You heading outside without me?”
Again I lie. “Huh? No. Just see’n how deep the snow is.”
There, resting just inside the base of the storm door, is today’s mail.
Bending down I pick up the collection of papers.
With only the ill-fitting storm door between me and the cold of the outside world my teeth chatter as I stealthily flip through mail in search of news.
And upon finding an envelope from Boston University I stop, now fully frozen.
My heart seizes as the rest of the world falls away.
Gently I tug the letter from the pile of bills and advertising circulars. My chest pounds as I softly shake the too-skinny-to-be-good-news envelope above my head. And holding the envelope to battle-scarred sunlight I fail in my effort to read the hidden type.
A swell of tears surprises me, catching me off guard.
I shake my head as if saying ‘no’ to tears’ request for attention. Today they’ll be plenty of tears. Mine will not necessary. With a silent effort I push them back from whence they came.
Following the lead of swelling tears bile percolates, catching in my throat. Covering my mouth in a quick dry-heave I stagger slightly to the right and in doing so bump against the open wooden door.
As my 200 plus pound frame falls against the inner door it swings on squeaking hinges to conclude its journey. The door and I travel about six inches before landing with a dull thud against the hallway wall. The decades old pane of glass rattles loudly.
Sensing something wrong, Liz hollers, “Everything all right out there?”
I shake my head no, whispering to the unopened letter, ‘I don’t think so.’
As if the response is unimportant Liz sin-songs a question, “Did the mail come?”
“Yup, right here.”
I walk into the living room as Liz pushes forward, belly first, in an attempt to stand. With the mail tucked under my left arm I reach down with my right hand to help her up from the futon.
She stands, “Well, anything?”
Handing her the parcels I shrug.
Rifling through the stack of bills and circulars Liz stops cold.
I watch as eyebrows buckle and lips purse in response to the discovery of the slenderest of letters from BU, her first choice among medical schools.
She speaks in a whisper, “No…it’s skinny.”
She withdraws the letter from the pile and drops the remaining items to the floor. They scatter at our feet, some slipping under the lumpy futon.
Vivaldi grows quiet in preparation of seasons’ looming change.
With a snap of the wrist Liz gives the letter a quick sharp shake. Then, with a swift stomp, she bangs her foot to the floor. “One page…it’s gotta be a rejection letter.”
Her chin drops as her words falter. “No…”
Before me, she teeters.
She peels open an envelope containing a single sheet of paper.
Slowly she removes the folded letter, letting the envelope fall to the floor where it joins the weekly circulars from Circle Furniture and Macy’s.
And though I do not wish to witness what’s about to happen I force myself to watch as Liz unfolds the letter.
All around the air swells with the sounds of spring as Vivaldi’s next chapter engulfs our world. From the kitchen, the scent of coffee slips forward.
Inexhaustible light pours through plastic sheeting as brown eyes dart back and forth, searching for a future on a single piece of paper.
Rising from black lower lashes a liquid sheen fills my wife’s eyes.
Today they’ll be plenty of tears.
And not knowing what else to do I reach forward to gently squeeze her shoulder.
Drawing a deliberate breath Liz starts her story anew.
She looks up from a one page letter.
She closes her eyes and smiles.
“I did it. I got in.”
And she glows.
“I’m going to medical school.”