They Don’t Mean To

Bridget is in the giftware section of the department store, running her fingers over the deeply discounted snow globes, when she feels [img_assist|nid=5124|title=Scooter by Thomas Johnson © 2009|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=200|height=133]the constriction in her chest—her first bodily evidence that the heart, indeed, is a muscle. A muscle, not some stationary white fist captured on an x-ray.  Not pain exactly, but a rude clamping down, like the cumbersome, post-coital weight of an inconsiderate lover– or the burden of an unhappy childhood.  

     Her breath is short, her thoughts fugitive. Help me, Help me. And then she imagines being helped by shoppers and clerks, who are surprised, annoyed, and then concerned, some hero among them quick to call 911.  The ride to the hospital, her hospital, would be humiliating– her shameful stretched-out bra, the chaos of her purse.  And to those in the store, she would be a nameless lady, crumpled among snow globes, a topic of Christmas Eve dinner conversation.  No, she is fine, fine–lub-Dub, lub-Dub, she urges her heart toward routine iambic beats.  Longevity on both sides, assorted cancers, not heart disease, cholesterol levels near perfection. I am only 54, she reminds her heart, though on some days that number has seemed excessive.

     She palms the glass snow globe on the display counter.  Inside, fake flakes have settled on a Hummel house and figurines, a Swiss boy and his Swiss dog, a Swiss sleigh.   Like Swiss cheese, she thinks, trite and maudlin and untrue.  Even her mother, the great pretender and for one desperate moment the intended recipient of the globe, would have to agree. The sign reads 80% OFF! The subtext, the pre-holiday chicanery, reads Economy in the doldrums, We understand, and the real price of the globe is printed below in a small, hum-drum font, the insult of which is enough to shock her heart into normal sinus rhythm. 


     Back at work, Bridget can’t deny the aftermath, the sensation like a bruise purpling in her chest. And earlier in her office, as she hung up her red coat, hadn’t she felt an ache in her jaw, tracked its radiance northward to settle into the crook of her T-M joint?   Working in a hospital predisposes one to hypochondria, she knows, and is alert to the condition.

     She is alone now, stamping and processing x-ray films the old-fashioned way, in a darkroom, and glad to be there among ghosts. Those are what she’d thought of thirty-three years ago when, as a student, she developed and then clipped a skull and hand series of radiographs to a view box. Ghosts.  She had created ghosts from living flesh, a conundrum that the inverse square law, calipers, and step-up transformers would later dispel. 

     Here, in the acrid, blue-lit blackness, she can gloat in private.  As Chief Radiology Technologist, she’d argued that the darkroom be maintained for instances just such as these, when the two automatic processors were on the fritz—one darkening the films into missed diagnoses, the other, the newer one, chewing them up. Dr. B was surprised at her bold insistence in the face of hospital administrators, in the face of He Himself, who wanted the darkroom turned into a doctors’ lounge—a tertiary diagnostic conference room, as he’d proposed it to the facilities planners.    No, she’d stood up for herself without anger or aggression, stood up for common sense, for the techs who but for her would now be loading heavy cassettes up five flights to the OR processor, which is jam prone itself. Yes, she supports the techs, treats them justly, but she is glad not to be among their ranks.  There they are, on the other sides of the darkroom, positioning bodies into painful angles.  Pain, physical, mental, she tends to take it all in these days, like she used to. No, she being one of the few who still know how a darkroom functions, is glad to be away from them, invisible. The lead-lined doors into which the techs deposit the cassettes into the black hole of the darkroom are sticky but functional.  For an afternoon, on the eve of Christmas Eve, she gets to bask in righteousness, in a rote job for once, slamming doors on all four sides of her, the process smooth and orderly, like blood flowing into a healthy heart.


     Bridget’s Center City townhouse is only a quick bus ride from the hospital.  In fine weather she often walks to keep in shape, but it is cold and damp, the twilight murky.  She dozes on the bus, misses her stop, has to backtrack two blocks on foot.  The wind is cold and painful.  How dare her heart have behaved so badly?  She walks, she exercises at the fitness club, not enough, but who does?  She buys expensive, organic produce and avoids fast food, most of the time.  

     Ahead, the lambent light from the marquis of the Ritz Theaters gives her an idea: movie tickets and a gift card for dinner at the Chadds Ford Inn.  Practical gifts, certainly, but for her parents, just as strange as the snow globe. Had they ever eaten in a restaurant together in peace?  She can imagine them sitting across from each other, observing the other diners, hating themselves, hating that reflection of self in the other.  But lately—

     Last week her mother had called and persuaded her to spend Christmas Eve with her and her father in Chadd’s Ford. 

     “I’ll make bacon—Canadian– and eggs in the morning, organic, and waffles with blueberries.  I bet you don’t make that for yourself, do you?     I wouldn’t.  And Christmas, you and Brian and Sheila, the kids, and Aunt Jane—eight of us.”  Bridget envisioned her mother counting on her wrinkled white fingers.

     “Filet Mignon, Shop-Rite has them on sale this week—scalloped potatoes, asparagus, salad, and turkey, of course. Whole grain bread cooked in clay pots. Did I tell you?  Your father went out and bought a turkey fryer?  On his own.  They say they make the moistest meat, though we don’t eat much meat these days.”

     For the first time in many years, Bridget’s circle of friends, mostly colleagues turned friends from the hospital, are all going out of town for the holidays, and she has to work the day after Christmas.  For her, there is no where else to go but home.

     Four brick steps lead up to her front door.  Bridget had festooned the wrought iron railing with swatches of evergreen and red velvet bows.  A fresh green wreath circles the pineapple knocker on her front door.

     Inside, there is little evidence of Christmas. Her house is a solace to her, and she wants to keep it that way.  A few antiques, expert reproductions of pie tables and highboys, a modern kitchen.  The place was gutted during the Center City gentrification twenty years ago when she and her second ex-husband bought it cheap, and now even with the housing slump, its value is up.  More people than ever moving to the great old East Coast cities.  Every weekend and summer evenings, horse-drawn carriages clomp down her cobblestone street, suburban tourist craning for a glimpse into others’ lives. She usually keeps the drapes downstairs cracked an inch or so, but tonight she draws them tight.

     For dinner, a salad with balsamic vinaigrette and wild salmon.  Take that heart, she taunts it. After stacking her few dishes in the dishwasher, she takes her cup of green tea into the living room and settles on the sofa.  Her chest feels empty now.  Normal. 

     Most evenings she attends class or studies, but last week she handed in her portfolio—a chapbook of ten poems.  Supposedly she is on her way to a Masters of Science in Communications, but lately she has chosen rogue classes, for which the hospital might not reimburse her.  And so what?  She reminds herself she can afford it.  Professionals such as herself deserve to be compensated well—making more now than she ever thought possible when she began her career.   The hospital would not close its doors, as it threatened to do five years ago, the thought of which had sent her heart into palpitations.  Not like today, and those flutterings could as easily be attributed to peri-menopause as to loss of income.  She is beyond all that blood and money, she tells herself, though in her poetry class she’d written an ode to hot flashes, delighting the younger members of the class.  For other poems, she’d rummaged through the detritus of her unhappy childhood to rediscover and expose her parents in images.

     Her father, a mechanic, his face as grim and immobile as George Washington’s as he scribbles expenses on the back of an envelope at the kitchen table.  Every night, another envelope, more figuring, her father is an alchemist trying to change the rules of mathematics, and he tells his wife he is sorry he married.  Her mother is sanitized for the poem but still capable of calling her only daughter a lazy slut.

     Once, her father threw a burnt biscuit at her mother, but they normally battered each other with words—“You said,” “I never,” [img_assist|nid=5125|title=Altered State by Suzanne Comer © 2009|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=200|height=156]“You always,” their accusations crystallizing in the cold air of the large house, ricocheting off the windows and walls to hail down on the petrified bodies of their two children.

      For amusement, Bridget would sneak her mother’s hand mirror from her dresser and walk around with the house with the mirror pointing towards the ceiling and held close to her face.  The house was better, safer, somehow upside down.

     Instead of uniting against the onslaught, she and Brian mimicked their parents.  As adults, they got along by rarely speaking, gibes and eye rolls accessories in their awkward conversations. And now, out of nowhere, her parents’ battles seem to have ceased. To say they even bickered the last time she saw them—a year ago? –would be an exaggeration.  It has been going on for too long to ignore it—this, this mutual, gratuitous kindness.  She suspects dementia or Alzheimer’s, a reciprocal alignment of disease. Folie a deux.

     Tomorrow, she will have to make sure her father doesn’t set the house ablaze with the turkey fryer. She’ll suggest, subtly, that they book appointments for CT scans and have Dr. B, a great diagnostician, despite his bullying and pouting, take a look at them.

     Dr. B,  her relationship with him mirroring that of her first two husbands, mirroring that of her parents.  Passivity, first, playing house, pretending, like her mother, then, and also like her mother, for years an unleashing of the furies, though Bridget reversed the process with her husbands.  With the first, a resident in urology, she’d gone beyond nag, bellowed at every slight and then kicked him out of the apartment she’d had the good sense to lease in her name.  With the second, a dosimetrist in the radiation therapy department at a neighboring hospital, she’d caved and then caved some more, until she was hollow and hardly noticed his departure.  With Dr. B, a flimsy truce ruled now, borne out of exhaustion and perhaps even boredom, not forgiveness on either side, she knows. 

     She blames her parents for her difficulties more than is healthy, she fears now.

     Her thoughts drift back to the hospital where she has spent so much of her life. “To Forgive is to Heal,” reads a plaque she allowed one of the techs to hang in the Special Procedures room. Yes, but childhood traumas stay with one forever, reads the invisible plaque beside it, and then on the other side, forming a triptych of advice, Only so much damage can be undone, as the x-rays taken in this room will demonstrate. In fact, the very room attests to the difficulty of forgiveness.  The quagmire of steely instruments on metal trays, the looming X-ray tubes, and the cold hard table all hiss, rant, and bellow of the resentment that clogs the arteries and thickens the blood. And perhaps bitter anger is karmic justice, croaks some rusty voice from the haz-mat containers.

    Damn her parents to think they can sweet talk their way into her forgiveness.  After all, she reminds herself, if people forgave so easily, if she had turned out unscathed, why would people like her parents ever be motivated to change their ways?  To motivate others to change? If she has to die of a heart attack, she hopes it is in her old bed, where her parents will find her cold body on Christmas morning.  Think of it as a gift, she will write on a note beside the bed.  But they won’t get it.

     In her Jetta, Bridget eels along Route 1 towards Chadd’s Ford, past the Brandywine Battlefield where Cornwallis and Washington battled it out on a misty day. Unlike today, which is cold and bright.  Her parents live on the Knoll, a subdivision of colonials, in its heyday a rural Shangri-la for the upper middle classes.  They moved here from an apartment when Bridget was six but unlike the neighbors, they could not afford it.  The house was a major theme in the parents’ disputes.  At the end of month, at the paying of the bills, the specter of the poorhouse lurked in every room.  In her room, Bridget battled with sleep, dreamed her bed was poised at the edge of some rickety lean-to in the slums of Calcutta, where her father swore they were all headed. 

     Now, the mortgage is paid, and the last time she was here she noticed her parents were beginning to replace the second-hand furnishings.  Retired from their jobs—her mother had been a cashier at a gift shop—they spoke respectfully to each other, and to her.   Can everything be boiled down to money, she wonders incredulously, as she brakes down her parents’ sloping driveway.

      The garage door opens.  Her father, dressed in a light blue sweat suit, is standing by the turkey fryer, parked to one side of his old Impala.

     “Costs a pretty penny, too,” he yells, patting the fryer.  As he walks toward her car, she scans him for the listing, tell-tale gait of the demented.  But he is plumb, upright as an elm.  He takes her bag and puts a hand on her back, directing her past the turkey fryer and the Impala to the inside door, which he opens with one hand.  “Bridget’s here,” he calls into the house.

     Her mother, dressed in a white sweat suit, hugs her, her long arms vice-like in their grip.  “It’s been too long.  I’ve missed you,” she whispers into the hollow of Bridget’s neck. Her father stands behind them, grinning, rubbing Bridget’s arm.  

     Not so long ago, Bridget reminds herself, she would have carried her own bag into the house, and her mother would have stayed put in her comfortable chair, their daughter’s visit no big deal.  Did they know it was she?

     “We were just doing Tai-chi,” her mother says, pulling away.  “Let me show you the tree.”

      Her mother takes her hand and leads her up the three steps into the kitchen, where spaghetti sauce simmers on the stove, into the living room, scented with evergreen. Ribboned packages are tucked beneath a lush tree.  Tai Chi? 

     Her parents point out the ornaments, the old ones, the new.  The blue bells with silver stripes that Bridget can not remember.  The old red balls with the snowflake centers look vaguely familiar, but the trees of her childhood had been thin spindles dying in some cold corner.

     “These I got at Pier 1 last year,” her mother says about the bold colors and designs that speak of Mumbai, Tangiers, and Marrakech, Christmas balls of sienna, chartreuse ruby and ochre.

     “We can sit in here,” her father pipes in, pointing to a new sofa and chairs, “or we can go down to the rec room where I got a fire going.  What do you think?”  He looks to his wife and daughter for guidance in this matter of what to do with their bodies.

     Bridget notices for the first time that her mother has had her white hair cut in the trendy angled cut of news anchors. Her father’s hair is still mostly dark.

     “We could,” her mother answers after a pause, “but maybe Bridge wants to take a nap before dinner?  You look beautiful but a little tired.  The hospital is probably working her too hard, Herb.  Laying off people left and right in this economy and expecting others to work as if they’re three people.  But you know more about that than I do, Bridget.  Would you like to take a nap, dear?”

     She would.

     Up in her old room, she sinks into the twin bed and wonders how she can possibly sleep here, but her body remembers the old contours of the mattress.  A nap, so rare, would have been such an affront to her former mother. 

     She dreams of other houses, with hidden rooms and trap doors, people who morph into her parents, her friends, Dr. B, the custodian who solemnly cleans her office.

     It is one of the shortest days of the year, and she awakens to darkness.  Downstairs, she watches her father take a fork and fish a spaghetti noodle out of a boiling pot.  He breaks it in two and peers into the center. Who knew he could boil pasta? “Done,” he proclaims and then turns around.  “Oh, you’re up.  How did you like the new bed? Got it last week.  Still a twin cause your mother wants to put in a craft table. Dinner’s almost done though—you’ve got good timing.”

     “Not always,” she answers, though she could detect no snideness in his comment. She sits down at the same battered table that darkens her poems, though her mother has covered it with a cloth patterned with crimson poppies.

     “What do you mean?” her mother asks, coming into view now as she closes the refrigerator. “I always thought you had good timing.  You got a job right after—“

     “I mean you—both of you.  Like you are now, if it’s real.  This is the home I should’ve been born to.”

     Her parents exchanges glances of collusion.  She hates it when people do that.  Do they think you are blind?  Or are they aware you’ll notice and are belittling you without words?

     “Well, let’s eat now before the spaghetti goes starchy,” her mother finally says.  “I thought we’d eat in here tonight, tomorrow, of course, in the dining room.”

     With her husband’s help, her mother pours the sauce and the spaghetti into bowls and sets them on the table.  Their movements are harmonious, as if they’d been cooking side by side for decades. Her father sets a bowl of freshly grated cheese on the table and inserts a fancy spoon.  Also new.  Seldom cheese on the old naked table and if so, the generic kind shaken out of a green box, and her father bitching about how much even that cost.

     “Oh, the bread!” Her mother rises from the table in alarm. I baked it in clay pots, like I told you, Bridge. Whole grain.”  

    “Sit down, Susan, I’ll get it.”  Her father is up, places his palms on her mother’s back to ease her down.  He leans down and says “Excellent sauce, by the way. Perfect combo of sweet and spice.”

     “You helped.  Thank yourself, too.”

     “Okay.  Thanks to me, too.”  He grins at Bridget, and she fears for a moment he might wink at her.  It would be another first, and she is grateful he doesn’t.  Still, she wonders how she can possibly summon an appetite at this table.  Their behavior, both in the past and now, like a barbell dropped on her chest.

     But her father is right—the sauce is divine, caramelized with garlic, onion, morel mushrooms, and fresh basil, the spaghetti, whole wheat, cooked al dente.  The meatballs and sausages are crusted with a thin layer of flavor, olive oil, the meat inside moist and tender, the two textures mingling exquisitely on the tongue.  Her father cuts and lathers a slice of warm bread with herbed butter and places it on her bread plate. She eats it.

     For dessert, frozen pineapple mousse with a swirl of crème fraiche and shredded coconut on top.  Bridget can not turn it down. 

     “First time I made it—recipe in an old cookbook my mother gave me for our first wedding anniversary,” her mother explains.

     Bridget spoons the last dollop from her parfait glass.

     “Good?” Her father smiles, a proud boy of nearly 80.

     “You never—“  Bridget frowns at her mother.

     “I know,” her mother answers, her voice scratchy.

      Bridget looks at her father. “You always–”

     “I know,” he says, though she does not know how she is going to finish.  So how can he know?  She tries to summon anger about such easy confessions, their “I knows” usurping the ugly details of her complaints against them.  She blames her quietude on the postprandial lull that has dulled her senses.  They know, sure, and of course they didn’t mean to.

     “We know,” her mother says, “and we’d like to make it up to you.” 

     Her father pulls an envelope from the flannel shirt he has changed into for dinner.  “An early Christmas present.”    

     She opens it slowly.  Inside, is an airline voucher for a ticket to Spain.  How did they know?  When had she told them?

     “You said you wanted to go.  For you, not your brother, because you got the brunt of us,” her father says. “You being older.”  He scratches at a drip on the tablecloth.

      Her mother takes her hand and says, “And tomorrow, we’re giving everyone a ticket on a cruise, ourselves included—even Aunt Jane.  I thought we could work out the dates tomorrow.  You and Brian, I mean.  We’re free whenever. But we understand if you don’t want to accompany us.”  The collusive looks again, though her father nods at Bridget.

     “How can you afford it?”

     Her father has brought a tray set with cordial glasses and a bottle of crème de menthe to the table and pours for three.  He sits down again and looks down into his drink.  “I’m not sure myself.  For starters, we never lost money in the stock market like most of the people around here.  I never believed in it.”

     “We never spent much,” her mother adds.  “Not on you or your brother, like we should have—“

     “And then we both worked for years past retirement age, collecting social security.”

     “Your father left us a CD, too, don’t forget, Herb.” 

     “Well, yes, and the point is we forgot it and didn’t spend it, and there it was, in a box collecting 9% interest locked in for 20 years.  And your mother, your grandmother, left us the silver and all her awful—“

     “Ugliest, gaudiest jewelry you ever laid eyes on.  The house was just as awful.”

     “But profitable.  We sold when gold and silver and real estate were at the highest in a hundred years.”

     “So all of a sudden, we realize there is money, and the house is paid off.”

     “And then you decided you didn’t have to hate each other and your children anymore?”  Bridget notices her mother and father are both wearing red shirts.

     “Not at first,” her mother says.  “Though I never hated you.”

     “Took a while to settle down, to sink in,” her father adds.

     “And then we read this book.  Train Your Brain and End Your Pain. Only takes about two weeks.”

     “Two weeks only, and you can instill new habits.”

     “Diet and exercise, and new ways of thinking.  New pathways in the brain.”

     “Neural connections.”

     “Neurons in the brain make new connections.”

     “And your brain forgets the old ones.”

     “By not thinking about things the old way.  Replace them with new thoughts.”

     “We were forgetting about things anyway.  Who did what to whom, where I laid my glasses.”

     “So we decided to love each other again, because the alternative wasn’t working very well. Longevity on both sides of the family.  The thought of another twenty years—so, we rewrote our life, made a new narrative, as the book said.”

     “Who ever thought that loving could be a habit?”

     “Now, we work as partners. He wouldn’t want to live without me.”

     “And vice versa.”

     “We didn’t forget we weren’t good parents, though.  We were the worst. We want to make reparations.”

     “We got you the book for Christmas, too, so you understand.  For the first time in this house, there is a twinkle in Santa’s eye.”

     “We have more presents tomorrow. More surprises,” her mother sings and bounds up from the table to grab plates.  Her father joins her.  “Oh, and your father got a movie for tonight.  Something indie, well-reviewed.”

     “We’ll get this cleaned up, Bridget.  Go sit, relax in the rec room.  You work too hard, and we hardly work. You deserve a break.  The fire’s still going pretty strong.”

     One, two, three steps down to the rec room, where her father has preceded her and is stacking another log on the fire.

     “Relax,” he says, pointing to his comfortable chair. He trots back up the stairs, though she detects stiffness in the hinge of his hips.  She has seen spry men his age topple over, suddenly.

     Bridget falls into the sofa instead, her muscles relaxing in the heat, her mind beyond thought.  She slips off her shoes, sets a foot on the coffee table. On the end table is a travel magazine, opened to a view of the Caribbean.  Pages and pages of beach, sun and happiness. 

     She can hear them in the kitchen, a pair of magpies.

     She flips through the pages again and then closes her eyes, the dazzling water and skies seared onto the retinas.  She is skipping along a sandy pathway to the beach, a white-haired parent on either side of her.  It is a long stretch to the sea, though, and they all wander off the edge of the photograph. Her parents are soon exhausted, they’ve let go of her hands and she, too, is moving at a slower pace.  Still, she is the first to reach the water, warm as a baby’s bath.  Her parents trudge behind, growing feebler with every step.  She fears they will begin bickering soon.  And she lunges into the blue sea, her body going down, down, to cooler water, toward the murky gradations of water and ocean floor, cobalt and baby blue, the world turning around.

Pamela Main lives in Wilmington, Delaware and directs the Writing Center at Penn State Brandywine, where she also teaches creative writing.  Her previous publications include The Greensboro Review,  Louisiana Literature, and Puerto del Sol. One of her stories will also appear in Clapboard House in the fall.  She is working on a novel set on an imaginary island off the New Jersey coast.

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