From the amount of time he spent on it, I thought Jacob might be building a pillow castle, complete with turrets, moat, and drawbridge. But when I looked in on him at five-thirty, I found him enclosed in an elegantly simple construction. He’d set two square cushions perpendicular to the far wall of the room, one leaning against the dresser and the other against the bed, so that the cushions faced each other with a space of about three feet between them. A plain white sheet had been stretched across the top of the cushions as a roof, and one of my square, fringed scarves was laid crosswise over that, leaving a kind of tent flap hanging in front.
Crouching near the entrance to the fort, I heard Jacob saying, “Here, have some of mine.” He was sharing, perhaps, his last crust of bread with the other members of his orphan band. I hesitated to dissolve this scene by lifting the flap.
“Jake?” I said.
Jacob’s head appeared, the light of make-believe still shining in his eyes.
“Daddy made your favorite tonight…” I left the next word a blank for him to fill in with his usual cry of, Macaroni!
Instead he glanced at the structure around him and asked, “Mommy, can I keep it up?”
“What, for today?”
He didn’t answer.
“Or for longer?”
I looked closer at the cushions to make sure he hadn’t taken them from the TV sofa. No, they had come from the two identical brown armchairs that none of us ever sits in. A strategic choice.
“Sure you can,” I said. Satisfied, Jacob squirmed out of the fort and made a dash for the dining room table.
Within fifteen minutes every plate but Madeleine’s was clean. Our daughter is a paradoxical eater: when left to her own devices, she helps herself to a spoonful of food once every two minutes or so – but as soon as Carl or I pick up the spoon ourselves, she will eat at an astounding pace until she’s had her fill. Now Carl crouched next to Madeleine to perform this ritual while I enlisted Jacob in helping me stack dishes and carry them into the kitchen.
As I headed back to the dining room for our glasses, I heard Carl crooning to Madeleine as she ate, “How bout that, Maddy? What would you think of having a little baby brother or sister?”
Had he really—
“I wanna baby!” Madeleine chirped, clapping her hands.
Jacob, who had lived through this process before, looked at me and then ran up close and put his ear to my belly.
“Jacob, there’s no one – there’s no baby.” I stepped away from him and swiped the stack of glasses off the table.
“Careful with those,” Carl murmured.
“Careful!” I repeated before turning and stomping into the kitchen.
Carl followed me. “Kate, what is this?” he said. “You’re acting like—”
“Don’t tell me how I’m—”
“Oh, are we snapping at each other now?” Carl said, raising his voice above mine. “We’re shouting and snapping at each other, is that what we’re doing? Jesus, Kate!”
I shut up at that, hoping he would hear the way he sounded. Instead we heard Madeleine sniffling.
“Aw, honey,” Carl said, going to her.
When I had loaded up the rest of the dishes, I looked around for Jacob but couldn’t see him anywhere in the kitchen or dining room. I had an idea, though, about where he might have gone. Lifting up the front flap of the pillow fort, I was rewarded with the sight of my son’s face – though the expression on it was no reward.
“You can come out, Jake,” I said. “Daddy and I had a disagreement, but it’s okay now. I’m sorry we yelled.”
Jacob cast his gaze around the room and then returned it to mine. “I don’t wanna come out,” he said.
“Then what do you want to do?”
“I wanna do I Spy. The blue one.”
So I got down the blue I Spy book from his bookshelf and slid it into the fort. We both lay on our stomachs – he inside the fort, facing the room, and I outside it, facing him – and he put the book between us. We took turns squinting and pointing at the intricate photos, exclaiming at all the funny shapes we hadn’t seen at first. After awhile Carl appeared in the doorway to inform us that Madeleine was asleep, and it was time for Jacob to get ready for bed.
Before abandoning his stronghold, Jacob sent me an imploring look and said, in a voice which told me he was really asking, “I wanna sleep here tonight.”
Carl and I looked at each other. “I don’t see why not…” I said.
Carl shrugged. “It’s okay with me.”
That was all Jacob needed to hear. Minutes later, teeth brushed and jammies donned, he was swaddled up to his chin in his favorite choo-choo sleeping bag, his pillow peeping beyond the mouth of the fort. We each kissed him goodnight before going to bed ourselves.
* * *
Carl and I made sure to talk about children once we’d started dating seriously. And we had both agreed that we wanted kids – a small litter of them, maybe two or three. Back then, when it was all hypothetical, I could contemplate those kinds of numbers with gusto. Once during Jacob’s second trimester, when morning sickness had become a memory, I’d even thought, Why stop at three? The intoxicating knowledge that my body, at that very moment, was crafting a Self the world had never seen before, somewhat knocked off my sense of proportion.
But parenting had snapped that right back into place. I was at my limit with Jacob and Madeleine – not because I didn’t love them, but because trying to love them baffled me. For every time I found the right words to comfort them or the story that would make them laugh, for every time they clambered, smiling, into my arms – there would be other times, a horrible multitude of times when, for all my efforts, their pain was not soothed, their fear not banished, their curiosity not aroused. Some days, being a mother called to mind my dreams about public speaking, the ones where I would stride up to a podium, ready to rehearse my performance for an event the next day – and then I would look up, into a sea of faces.
Carl, I knew, was not yet at his limit. And when he’d realized that I was not going to budge on the subject, I guess he’d decided to enlist our children in the task of persuading me…
No. That wasn’t fair. Who knows why he’d brought it up with Maddy. Maybe the words had slipped out before he could catch them. Really, I wasn’t being fair at all to Carl these days. I had even taken to keeping my birth control pills under a stack of hand towels in our bathroom closet. I wouldn’t allow myself to think that Carl was going to tamper with them – that would be beyond paranoid – but I felt safer, somehow, when they were hidden.
* * *
After that day Jacob insisted – every night, without fail – on sleeping in his pillow fort. Kids are like that, as I’ve been led to believe: they develop complexes, they go through phases. He could have fixated on that fort at any time and for any number of reasons, and it wasn’t my place to fathom his reasons for him.
Yet another change was taking place in our household, though no one else seemed to notice it. That was hardly surprising, though, because this change was happening inside me. You see, I had this special drawerful of daydreams in my mind: happy scenes I’d stowed away, like letters from old friends who had promised to come and visit me on a certain day in the future. There was Carl’s and my tenth anniversary: a hushed restaurant, tender words exchanged, eyes glowing with wine and with wonder at all we’d done and still had to do. There was the day my editor would finally entrust me with a photo essay in a foreign country – Singapore, I hoped – and I would book flights for Carl and the kids to meet me in Europe when I was finished. Even Jacob’s first day of kindergarten, less than a year away: I used to relish an image of Carl and me, seated side-by-side on the living room carpet, the night before Jacob’s big day, checking his backpack for crayons, construction paper, the tissue box his teacher had requested, perhaps slipping in a chocolate since he couldn’t read a note… Whenever I needed comfort, I had always been able to pick one of these scenes from its drawer and let it fill my mind like sunlight. Yet looking through them now, something seemed to tip and swish inside me, blurring the pictures that had once seemed so clear.
I found myself sitting idle at work one day, in that rare quiet which comes between the passing of one month’s deadline and the arrival of the next month’s assignments. On the pretext of a bad headache, I left the office at 3:30.
I had a strong urge to make spinach lasagna. It was one of Carl’s favorite dishes, and it was also one of the few grown-up foods that Jacob and Madeleine had acquired a taste for. I stopped at the store on my way home for a few ingredients, and I called Carl to ask if he could pick up the kids because I was going to be making a special dinner.
“I like the sound of that,” he said.
The lasagna had already gotten a start in the oven by the time Carl’s car pulled into the driveway. I had cleaned up the countertop in the kitchen, put the unused ingredients away, and positioned myself at the dining room table in front of a novel.
“What’s this I hear about a special dinner?” Carl said as he came in.
“It’s in the oven. Just a little while longer.”
“Is it… chicken fingers!” Jacob exclaimed, as if the words were a spell that could bring chicken fingers into being.
“Even better,” I assured him, “it’s lasagna.”
Jacob registered this with an unreadable expression as his mind leaped on to the next order of business: “Can I play first?”
“What, with your sister?”
“No, in my room.”
He had dashed away before I was halfway through my nod of assent. Maddy, unaware of the rejection she had just endured, bumbled up to me and raised her arms to signal that she wanted to be held. I drew her onto my lap and started running my fingers through her crop of tender hair. I knew, as I leaned in to kiss her cheek, that Carl was watching us.
“Were you in the green room today, Maddy?”
“Wellow,” she said.
“Who did you play with?”
“Kyla.” She started to bounce her knees up and down.
“SHHHHHHLLLL—OOP!” I said as I grabbed her knees with my hands. She let out a happy shriek. “Say, ‘Bohm—Bohm—Bohm—Bohm.’” I imitated the sounds of a timpani as I raised and lowered each of her knees.
“Bump-Bump-Bump-Bump,” she said, a rabbit hopping.
“So.” Carl took a seat in the chair next to mine and turned it to face me, “What’s the occasion?” He had the start of a knowing smile on his face, as if he already had some occasion in mind.
I shrugged, gently. “There’s no occasion… that I know of. I finished early at the office today, and I wanted to come home and really cook for once.”
“Oh. That’s sweet,” he said, but his tone of voice was like that of someone who’d expected savory.
Since my hands had gone still, Madeleine began bouncing her knees on her own again, chanting, “Bump-Bump-Bump-Bump.”
“You look a little… discomposed,” I said to Carl. I hoped the formal word would give my observation a lighter touch.
“Oh, I… forget about it.” He stood up and started toying with the buttons near his collar. “I’ll go get changed before we eat.”
“Carl, what is it? Is something wrong?”
He sighed and turned to face me. “The first thought that passed through my mind, if you really want to know, was that… Well, I haven’t seen you taking your pills lately, and I thought – I thought you might have changed your mind, or even already… See? This is why it’s no use to tell you what I’m thinking. I let out one honest thought, and it’s like I’ve stabbed you with a knife. I mean, who do you think I am, Kate? Am I some kind of villain to you?”
“No!” I said. I had to say at least one word, to make him stop. “No,” I said again. Madeleine had gone completely still. I took a breath and then went on, my voice high and whiny from internal pressure, “Of course you’re not a—”
That’s when the kitchen timer went off.
Carl looked at me.
“Maddy,” I said, “go tell your brother dinner’s ready.” I didn’t need to say it twice; she wriggled down from my lap and set a straight course out of the room.
Rising from my chair, I implored Carl, “It’ll burn.” He nodded and dropped, listless, back into his seat.
Oh Carl, I thought as I set the sizzling lasagna on top of the stove and turned off the oven – Carl, if you had any idea how much I want to talk to you. And I’m not scared of the two of us disagreeing. Truly, I’m not. The only thing that scares me is your… resentment, that’s the word. That, and the shouting…
“You heard what I said!” Carl’s voice cut through my thoughts.
He’d left the dining room. I followed the sound into Jacob’s room, where I found Jacob and Madeleine nestled deep inside the pillow fort. Carl was kneeling over them, holding up the front flap. As soon as he saw me, Jacob made a long, low moan of the word, “Mmmmmmooommmyyyyy…”
“What is it?” I glanced from one face to the next. “What’s going on?”
“You want to tell her?” Carl said to Jacob.
Jacob started again: “Mmmmmommm—”
“They said they don’t want to come to dinner,” Carl interjected. “They said they want to stay in here.”
I took a step forward. “I could bring in a plate for them—”
“No!” Carl was looking at me now. “No, Kate! Goddamn it, if we can’t stand to see each other’s faces the rest of the day, we can at least sit down at the dinner table for fifteen fu—fifteen minutes.”
“Carl, calm down.” I could hear Maddy starting to whimper.
“Kate, I’m trying to—keep us… We are not going to spend the whole day hiding from each other. OK? Now—get—out!”
In time with the last word he spoke – I could see what he was going to do; I ran forward as if that would stop him, which of course it didn’t – Carl tore the sheet off the top of the fort, sending the two cushions spinning into the center of the room in the process. The cushions came to rest with a weightless thud. And there Jacob and Madeleine lay, completely exposed to the room and to their father’s angry face.
I took a step towards them, and I might have actually uttered the word that hung at the tip of my tongue. “Babies,” I might have said – or then again, I might have only thought it; it was impossible to tell, since no sound released at that moment could have risen above the abject wails, the howls, the floor-pounding and horrible keening that erupted from our children.
They were lost, swept into a private whirl of pain by the knowledge that a violation had been committed against them. Carl’s look was equally distant as he stood there, still clenching one end of the sheet, gazing with grim astonishment at the work of his hands. I knelt close to them, the three of them, and kept still. Until someone was ready to speak again or to be touched, there was nothing to do but wait.
* * *
Bedtime with Mozart, Baby Beethoven, Songs for Sleeping. We had played selections from these CD’s and more, varying the arrangement and snugness of Jacob’s blankets as he listened. But Jacob continued to gaze at us, his mouth opened halfway to a giggle, as if he knew the main event was yet to come.
“Maybe he wants you,” I whispered. Jacob’s waving fingers had found the large toggle button on Carl’s sweater, which poked through the bars of the crib, and taken hold of it.
“Does he?” Carl said, leaning in towards Jacob. “Wants to see me dance, does he?” He slipped his arms around our son, who gurgled with pleasure. “Well, Jake”—Carl lifted Jacob to rest against his neck—“You’d make a grown man into a fool for love. Use your power well.”
“Sing to him,” I suggested.
“I’m a piano teacher, not a singer,” Carl said, but then he looked into Jacob’s thoughtful face and gave him a bounce. “Huh! Huh! Baaay-by beluga in the deep blue sea… That’s all I know, Kate.”
“He likes it.” Jacob was nestling deeper into Carl’s neck.
“Well,” Carl said. He began to walk up and down the length of the room, alternately singing and humming, “Baby beluga in the deep blue sea… Hmm-hm-hm-mm-m-mm-m-hmm-hmm-hmm…”
Jacob surrendered so completely that, when we laid him down again, I had to wipe a blissful trickle of drool from the corner of his mouth. I went to bed on a cloud that night, buoyant with love for my husband and son. Remember this, I had told myself just before sleep embraced me.
But now the image of that evening rose up, a warm flash of speech and smell and gesture, amidst pictures of an anniversary dinner, of an unused backpack ready for kindergarten. And when had I slipped it in with my daydreams? Of course it didn’t belong with them because it had already happened; it was real. It was real once.
* * *
Sometime in the night I woke to find Carl’s side of the bed empty. I’d heard him get into bed earlier. He probably went to the bathroom, I told myself, but I lay still and waited, all the same, for him to come back in.
Once the children had finally calmed down, we’d ended the evening in hurried silence. I gave Jacob and Madeleine each a plate of lasagna, which they pecked at once or twice before their weariness overcame them. They were asleep by eight o’clock. Carl left for a walk. I spooned the rest of the lasagna into the trash and made sure to go to bed before he got back.
Now I saw Carl coming in through the doorway. I closed my eyes because I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to him. I could feel him sit down at the edge of the bed. Then he stayed there, not moving to get under the covers, just sitting. I opened my eyes. His back was drooped forward, and he held his face in his hands.
“Carl?” I said.
He didn’t seem surprised to hear me. That, or he hadn’t heard me. I pushed down the covers and sat up.
“Carl, what is it?”
He straightened his back and rubbed his eyes. “Oh, I… I went into Jacob’s room just now. Had this idea that I could put his fort back up. I couldn’t figure out how to keep it from falling in, though, so I just… left it there.” I thought he wasn’t going to say anything else, but then he let out a shaky sigh and went on, “I’m a real gold-star parent, aren’t I, Kate?”
As if I had been waiting all along for this signal, I shifted my weight and crawled across the bed. I put my arms and legs around Carl, holding him from behind.
“Oh,” he said, adding with some reluctance, “You’re squeezing me.”
I squeezed tighter and planted a row of kisses from his neck to his shoulder before loosening my grip.
“It’s good to hear you,” I said. “You sound like you again.”
He laughed grimly.
I almost stopped myself from saying the thought that had risen to the top of my mind. But I wondered whether I would ever again have the kind of opening I had right then.
“You know,” I said, “for a moment back there, you really had me scared.”
His body tensed, and I was ready to chastise myself for saying it, but then I felt him breathe, his muscles soften. He parted my hands from around his stomach and twined his fingers through mine.
“You and me both,” he said.
I tightened my hold on him.
I wish I could say we stayed awake for hours, telling each other every worry, fear, and hope that had burdened our hearts, until we had freed ourselves to laugh and reach for each other with tender shyness and make love – searching, clutching, till we felt ourselves bloom open from our most secret places – and then fall asleep eager for the next day to start. Somewhere on Earth, I hope, there is a couple who has evolved enough to bring such fantasies to life in the course of an evening. As for Carl and me, all we managed to do was to hold onto each other, sharing the warmth of our two bodies, until finally we had grown so still that only the sounds of our breathing rose above the hush of our sleeping home. And I thought, Is it foolish of me – to have so much hope that we can learn to love each other better? But I was already smiling.
“Ten bucks says we end up in therapy,” I whispered.
That made him laugh.
* * *
Late in the night – or, as it might have been, early in the morning – we crept into Jacob’s room, dramatically shushing each other, and gathered up the scattered pieces of his pillow fort. As his last act of defiance, Jacob had insisted on sleeping on the floor, in his choo-choo sleeping bag, in just the spot where his pillow fort would have stood if Carl hadn’t torn it down. Now Carl held the cushions in place as I tucked the white sheet around one, then the other – taking care not to brush Jacob’s face with the sheet as I stretched it over him. We lay my scarf over this construction, and since no part of Jacob poked out past the edge of the sheet, we let the scarf drop down to enclose him. Then we stood back for a moment to look at what we’d made.
“You’re sure it won’t fall on him?” Carl asked.
“He worked a long time on the design,” I said. “I think it’s stronger than it looks.”
Carolyn Clark earned her B.A. in English and Russian and can recite poetry in both languages – a skill which she mainly uses to entertain herself at long traffic lights. She currently lives in her hometown of Saint Louis, Missouri, and expects to start working towards her Master’s in English Literature this fall.
© 2013, Carolyn Clark