How many times can you lose a child without even having one before things change?
She grabbed me as if a trap door had opened beneath her feet.
Her hand trembled, and her face, a shock of white, squirmed and twisted like a squall. I felt something like resentment as her gaze went beyond me, out there to the Atlantic Ocean inhaling the last of the evening sun. I turned to see what she was seeing, trying to understand what was happening. All I saw were the crooked smiles of my fellow businessmen as they finished the last of their free drinks, loose enough now to join their wives on the beachside dance floor. These people didn’t seem real. Nothing on Paradise Island was real. The poolside palm trees were plastic. The rocks were decorative and hollow. Artificial rapids pulsed along an artificial river that circled the resort like a moat. It was a place catering to surfaces. Certain stories were not to be told. My wife was having a miscarriage during cocktail hour on Paradise Island.
We married late. She was 39. I was 40. Prior to meeting Laura I had spent the better part of two decades whittling away at my neuroses, sharpening them, so that a certain expertise was developed in naming those things that I did not want. I was “independent,” living for the sudden and convenient rush of distraction. A year out of college, I got a job at a small bank. I could never adequately explain to people what it was I did for a living. I didn’t like the job. I stayed for 17 years.
I spent many of those years drinking cheap domestic beer and expensive foreign wine and taking credit card vacations to exotic locations with women who were far more successful than I. They had multiple degrees and knew a lot about art and shoes, and they could not stand to be alone. I became quite good at filling needs in order to cover up my empty spaces, the perfect fix for an adoration junkie. These little infatuations were built on an illusion of something just beyond my grasp.
Then I met Laura. Laura had an air of certainty and vulnerability that knocked me out. She was smart and intuitive and beautiful in that regal way that shrunk those around her. While I was chasing ghosts, she’d been working her way up the corporate ladder at an ad agency in Boston. At 30, she had a mid-life epiphany and decided to get her master’s degree at Harvard Divinity School. She graduated in 2001 and became the hippest, hottest ordained minister in Cambridge. We met on February 11, 2003, the coldest night of the year, dinner and an Improv show, followed by a couple of beers, then to a broken down Mexican joint that served high-end tequila. Tequila is a dangerous drink for a first date. It goes straight to that part of you that wants to share secrets. I told her I didn’t really believe in God. She told me she didn’t understand why anyone needed to see 87 Grateful Dead concerts. We found common ground in the brilliance of Moonstruck and the idiocy of a certain looming war. I kissed her at the bar. She kissed me back. We went to her place. We lay on the couch and wrapped ourselves around each other until 4:00 a.m. We fell in love listening to a cover of some cheesy Sting song. It was a good first date. We married four years later on Nantucket Island and immediately wanted to start a family.
The cocktail party swayed with a lubricated momentum. The air was thick with the hyperbole of moderately successful men. The music was tinny and shrill, as if the sound were being pumped through a thimble. Laura and I sat alone at a table. She was sweating slightly, trying to describe the dull ache in her lower belly. She seemed not to want to speak. We ducked out, no goodbyes, quiet and invisible as a secret.
We walked silently along a sandstone pathway that side-winded its way back toward our room at the Cove Atlantis. Neither of us was quite sure what was going on, or perhaps not yet prepared to give it voice. Maybe it was the food, maybe the strained small talk, maybe nothing. But there was another possibility that hid beneath each moment like a silent scream.
The path curved northward and hugged the shore. Music crackled behind us then faded under the rush of the incoming tide. The breeze off the ocean was slight and cool. For a moment everything seemed to hush. We stopped and looked to the ocean. The sun sank into the sea, disappearing in slow motion under the candy colors of the horizon.
We walked inside the hotel and boarded the elevator. The doors squeezed shut. The heat in the elevator cab was stifling and there was a smell like electricity and burnt rubber. As we surged upward, air hissed through gaps in the door like drops of water on a fire. Cables and pulleys clicked and echoed with each passing floor. The elevator stopped abruptly at our floor. As the door slid open Laura drew a sharp breath and cupped her hands over her belly. She said she felt as if her stomach was being crushed. She quietly but quickly walked to our room. Following close behind, I told her that everything would be OK.
When we got back to our room Laura went straight to the bathroom. I tried to follow her, but she shut the door and locked it. I stood at the door, listening to silence. Then I sat on the bed. I got up and walked around the room in a circle. I sat on the bed again. I got off the bed and walked the length of the room and back to the bed again. I sat at the desk near the balcony and picked up a pen. I drew a cartoon face on the hotel stationary, a cross-eyed clown with a nose that was all nostrils. I gave him two buck teeth and a dangling cigarette and finally a thin cropped moustache like Hitler. I crumpled it up and threw it away. I stared at the bathroom door. Then I walked across the room and onto the balcony and looked to the ocean. Seen from the 17th floor of our suite, far away from the rainbow drinks and polite conversation, displaced from the spotlight of the sun that had framed it like a background prop, the ocean was now vast and unbound and exhaling illusions. I could not distinguish between the ocean’s end and the evening sky’s beginning. There was a horizon in there somewhere, but the way in which the late evening sky and the surface of the simmering ocean bled their blues and grays made everything roll into one. I smiled for a very quick moment but then the bigness of it all squeezed me until I lost my breath. I walked back into the room feeling dizzy. The bathroom door was open. Laura stood there tall and stiff, pure white. The bones in her face were all sharp angles. Her outstretched hands clutched wads of toilet paper, damp with blood.
Six weeks earlier Laura woke me up to tell me she was pregnant. I had never seen her happier. There was the intoxicating sensation of being able to feel the temperature of her joy. It was warm and wrapped around us like a halo.
“Are you sure?” I said
“Look…” She handed me the little blue stick. And inside the little blue stick were two little pink lines. And the two little pink lines were perfectly symmetrical and perfectly beautiful.
Now everything was white—the bathroom, the tiles, the light, and Laura—everything except the red on her hands. The bathroom mirrors were the kind that reflected images over and over down into a long tunnel that had no end. When I was a boy and drawn to things that scared me, I would gaze into this same kind of mirror in my grandparent’s bedroom, my reflection repeating itself until I became a dot in the distance. For a moment Laura seemed unable to move. Then she tugged fiercely at my shirt and pulled me in. Our embrace was reflected in 10,000 images on and on until it became a dot in the distance.
It was 1:30 in the morning. Laura slept beside me, her hand in mine as it had been since the miscarriage. Light from the muted TV bounced around the room like flashes of lightning. Comedy Central was on. I watched an obese comic walk off the stage to a standing ovation from a thousand people who wanted more. I flipped to Sportscenter and saw a slow motion replay of a NASCAR crash and then baseball scores and then a Corona commercial with a young couple sitting on the beach holding hands and gazing out at the ocean. I clicked off the TV and tiptoed across the room toward the balcony. The moon was full and bright and high in the sky and from its light I saw Laura’s face like a ghost on the pillow. I walked onto the balcony and closed the door behind me. Ocean swells heaved and collapsed under the tug of the moon, up and down, rising and falling, on and on and on. I saw a lone swimmer riding the night waves, distant and tiny in the twinkling black sea, head bobbing up and down, arms and legs struggling against the swells, then limply onto the shore before fading into shadows.
The moon gleamed. I closed my eyes and a bright white image lingered as a projection on my inner lids. Then the image disappeared under a sea of blood; blood spilling out from my wife’s body, blood spilling out onto the toilet paper, blood spilling down into the toilet bowl. All that blood. And Laura: she had been so strong, so raw, so vulnerable. She had cried and she had held onto me and she had been devastated and then, quietly and gracefully, she had made a phone call to the on-call nurse back in Boston and calmly explained what had happened. She spoke of the pain in her lower belly, the pain that was dull and then sharp and then overwhelming. She spoke of the blood, describing with precision what the tissue in the blood had looked like. The nurse told her that, yes, she had probably suffered a miscarriage, but that everything would be OK. Laura hung up the phone. She laid her head gently on the pillow and fell asleep after two breaths.
I opened my eyes. Clouds had begun to move in and the air was heavy. I walked inside to the dark room and lay down on the bed. I nestled in close to Laura, taking care not to wake her with the touch of my body. Still, I could feel her—the heat of her, the tremble of her heartbeat, the soft breaths spinning forward quick as a secret. I felt her—my wife, beside me, in Paradise. But she was gone, a million miles away.
I slept for an hour, maybe two, still half in dreams as I woke at dawn. There was a slight chill in the room. I got up and closed the balcony door and stared out the window as the ocean disappeared under a loping mist. The room felt damp and smelled faintly of piss. It seemed smaller than I remembered. Laura was already dressed. I said something to her about Cambridge, our home, something about it being nice to get back to, maybe we can try again to—Laura interrupted me, saying something about a shuttle. The airport. It was time to leave Paradise.
The terminal at Nassau International Airport was skeletal and coldly geometric. The entire structure was encased in a metallic shell braced by endless rows of giant beams and thick arching poles all lunging and grabbing and crisscrossing. Everything seemed locked in place with the precision of clockwork. The terminal windows were vast and so heavily tinted that the blue sky outside appeared dark and threatening. All of this, the structure, the windows, the antiseptic sheen of the metallic limbs, all of it made the appearance of the sun through the windows feel like a trick, an illusion. But there it was, a gleaming white sphere, held against the dark gray sky like an offering.
We reached our gate. We sat down. The crying came suddenly, and would not stop.
“Are you okay?” I asked. She didn’t answer.
“We’ll be home soon.”
“I’m cold,” she said, her voice quiet and quaking. I reached out to touch her, but pulled back, her skin a thin layer of ice.
“Everything will work out,” I said. My face burned against the cold. “I promise.”
“No,” she said. And then again, “No.” And the crying…
Her hands trembled, her arms too, and her torso and legs and feet, all the way down to her toes, her whole body, shivering. She asked for a blanket. I told her I’d find one. I walked into the steel shell. The air was freezing, the space huge. I stopped, looked around, there were no stores, no newsstands, no coffee shops, just space and coldness and packs of people scurrying past like ants and huddling beneath big black screens and then scurrying off again through a terminal that seemed to be squeezing inward in a slow spiral of motion as a thousand different sounds ricocheted off the walls. I felt the ground open like a doorway beneath my feet. I inhaled a sharp breath and crunched my eyes shut.
I am on an island. I am inside an airport. I am going home. My wife is crying. She is cold. She has asked me for something. A blanket…
I spun around and saw that Laura was sitting impossibly close to me, not more than 10 feet away, and she was pointing at something. I turned to look and there it was, just steps away, a small kiosk selling blankets and pillows, 15 dollars for a small red blanket, I paid with a 20, grabbed the blanket, ran back to Laura and knelt down before her and together we wrapped the blanket around her body, and still…
“Stop it!” I shouted, “Just stop it!”
Silent. I sat down beside Laura and gazed out the window, watching the heat waves dance above the sprawling black tarmac like ghosts on a rising tide.
Nantucket Island, July 14, 2011
Laura and I were back on Nantucket Island celebrating our fourth wedding anniversary. It had been more than three years since her first miscarriage, 18 months since her third. We decided that when we returned home we would try one more time to have a baby.
We walked the streets of ‘Sconset under a brilliant sunset. The evening seemed laid out like a child’s daydream—vivid blues and yellows, pinks and greens, scatterings of white floating soundlessly across the sky like heroic balloon animals in a cartooned myth. It was so similar to the day of our wedding that it was hard not to see omens peeking around every corner.
Small cottages and low-roofed bungalows lined the narrow streets. Hydrangeas like giant crunch berries bloomed with flushed pride at the foot of every porch. Climbing roses spilled upwards from the earth, their vines twisting up the shingled sides before coming to rest on gently sloping rooftops. And the window boxes and the hollyhocks and the giant hedge trimmed into the shape of a whale and then the village center appears, unannounced and unadorned—a small market, an eight table cafe, and a tiny post office tucked away like an afterthought, news from the outside arriving like an invasion of privacy.
From the village square we walked down to ‘Sconset beach. We took off our shoes and laid a blanket across the warm sand. Behind us to the west the sun was setting over the bluff. The sky darkened. The ocean stilled. The evening’s first star pulsed a spiral light.
Suddenly she grabbed me, her hand trembling with excitement, her face a shock of delight. I looked to her eyes and felt something inside me open as her gaze went beyond me, out there to the Atlantic Ocean stretching endlessly eastward. I turned to see what she was seeing, trying to understand what was happening. And then I saw them—two young boys, blonde-haired and eager, dressed in white swim trunks and blue surf shirts, one a little older than the other, perhaps five or six, brothers, standing together atop the lifeguard stand, leaning over and pulling back, over and back, over and back, like tiny birds contemplating a first leap. And then, together, in a simultaneous act of daring and kinship, they leapt, tiny legs dropping to the ground, tiny arms reaching towards the sky, bodies flying through the air, seeming to freeze in mid-jump, their expressions somewhere between joy and terror.
Cambridge, MA, Late October 2011
Fall has arrived.
The sky is cloudless, the air crisp, the sun low in the sky against the deep blue.
The phone rings. It’s Laura. She’s walking home from Harvard Divinity School, tells me it’s chilly outside. I tell her I know, I’m sitting by the open window. She says she’ll be home in two minutes, she’s tired, feeling faint, starving. I tell her I’ve just finished cooking dinner, broiled salmon and a salad with greens and cherry tomatoes from the community garden, and it will be on the table when she walks through the door. I can her hear smile. I don’t tell her I bought ice cream. That will be a surprise. Lately she’s been addicted to the stuff.
I say goodbye and turn back to the evening. It’s dark now, night arriving earlier than yesterday, tomorrow it will be earlier still. A cold wind swirls up the ivy façade of our building. One leaf breaks free of its vine, floats and bobs as if on a string, then shivers slowly to the ground, crisp and orange-red like a dying ember. Soon the entire wall will be bare, its ornament of leaves descending to the earth, dying into the hardening ground, disappearing deep into the bones of winter.
I close the window and move to the couch. I wrap myself up in a familiar red blanket bought long ago in a cold dark airport. Its edges are frayed, its red faded, but still it warms. I close my eyes and imagine myself past the fall, past the winter. I keep my eyes closed until springtime.
I see saturated ground opening to release all that has invisibly broken down. I see new life climbing upward in deep oxygen green. I see the boomerang shape of an island and the lighthouse at Brant Point. I see the shimmering harbor and the artists and fishermen of South Wharf. I see a tiny red boat christened “007,” and she is smiling on still water. I see all of glorious Nantucket, the island of our wedding, the island that feels of home, the island that is a million miles away from a place called Paradise where something happened so long ago.
I open my eyes. I hear Laura’s footsteps rising up the stairwell. Her movements are slower these days, her tummy sporting the cutest little bulge, each step carrying the precious weight of the three-month-old twins growing in her womb.
The door opens.