By: Anne Marie DeVito
Anne Marie DeVito holds her BA in Journalism from Fordham University and is currently pursuing her MFA from New York University in Fiction Writing. Her work is forthcoming in The Zodiac Review in April 2012. Previously, she has been published in "Bumble Jacket Miscellany" Spring 2011 Issue, CosmoGIRL! Magazine, and has read her work on NYU Radio. She is currently working on a short fiction collection.
What I hated about the day it ended was not that it was the day it ended, but that it was such a damn beautiful day. That winter had been bleak and brutal with a relentless onslaught of snowstorms. For weeks, the city was covered in a whirl of powdered sugar. The whiteness dissolved quickly into puddles of sludge that clogged the streets. The salt trucks were buried, the sidewalks were buried, we were all buried, and no one believed it would ever stop. But it did. After the snow came the rain. Cold sheets so thick that everyone became wet mummies walking blindly into each other on the streets. Then finally, there was that beautiful day. It wasn’t terribly warm, but it was clear and bright. Rays of sun shot through the sparse clouds and the breeze carried the faint hint of lilacs. The sky was a dull blue, damaged, but still a damn beautiful blue.
We fought that morning. At the kitchen table at breakfast, Benjamin was drinking coffee with too much sugar and I was digging into a grapefruit with a spoon. He wore one of his dirty gray t-shirts with all the stains. Red streaks of paint and white finger prints of bleach and holes because the cheap cotton tore easily. The t-shirt was tight from his steady weight gain. It stretched taunt across his chest and the sleeves cut into his arms. I would bring that up when I was angry. Just something small I could hurt him with, like pricking a finger on a thorn, no blood but it still stings.
I was eating the grapefruit on a paper towel on our white oak table. The same table that we found broken on the streets, dragged seven blocks back to our apartment and repainted. Each time I scooped out a spoonful, the juice ran down the sides and soaked through the paper. The table became sticky and smeared with the broken fallen seeds, but I didn’t care. Benjamin bent his head over the Times, pretending to read. I knew it was pretend because he never flipped a page. He would rather skim the headlines of war and crime and blizzards than speak to me. He had nothing to say. We both had nothing to say.
“When’d you buy this grapefruit?” I asked, pointing at it with my spoon.
“I don’t know. Last week. The last time I went to the store.”
“I think it’s gone bad.”
“Grapefruit doesn’t go bad.”
“It does. All fruit does. Taste it, it’s sour.”
I handed him the half that wasn’t hollowed out, the half that was still intact. It was divided into such perfect triangles that it could make an atheist believe in something. Benjamin reached for the red sugar bowl. He tilted it and sprinkled sugar over the triangles.
“Too much sugar is very unhealthy, you know,” I said. Tiny crystals spilled onto the table and the way the light hit them, they sparkled. “Almost as bad as saturated fat.”
Benjamin ignored me and shuffled in his grandpa slippers across our tiny kitchen. He had to wiggle his way through the table and the chairs, past the black lacquered cabinets to the sink. There was a pile of dishes, some clean, some not. He found a bowl and shook off the excess water. When he sat back down, he plucked the spoon from my hand and smiled, “What can I say? I like sweet things.”
“Yes. It shows,” I let out a cruel laugh. When I wanted to, I could sound like a wicked queen.
He dug the spoon into the flesh of the fruit. With the first bite, his face twisted at its bitterness, but he would never give me the satisfaction of spitting it out.
“Tastes fine to me. Delicious.”
I took the bowl from his hands and tossed the half into the garbage beneath the sink. Above the sink, the kitchen window showed the long stretch of Second Avenue.
It was a quiet Saturday. There was a relaxed sensibility on the weekends for those in the city. The world caught its breath, the maddening rush of the work week calmed. Everyone slept later and walked slower. It was two days of freedom that could only be ruined by poor weather. That day, the sun had coaxed everyone outside. Older women in their pearls walked to brunch. Packs of teenage boys tossed a basketball between them heading to the park for an early game. There were too many strollers and kids on their fathers’ shoulders to count.
“I’m tired of this,” I said, tying my thin cotton robe tighter around myself. “I don’t want to do it anymore.”
“What?” he asked.
“I can’t do this anymore. I’m black and blue from the tests, it hurts when I take a shower. I always want to cry. Walking down the street and I want to cry. I’m exhausted.”
“Doctor Levine told us that might happen. She said you’d feel emotional, but it should stop eventually.”
“But it hasn’t. It only gets worse.” I turned to face him. “I don’t want to try anymore.”
His eyes moistened. In the early morning light, they looked like ocean waves. But that was the only sign of vitality on his face. His stubble cast a crescent moon over his face and his skin had lost its golden warmth and turned the ashy color of bone.
“Remember what she said?” he said with an urgency rising in his voice. He tugged at the hair on his head so it stuck up in peaks. “It probably won’t happen again. After three times, the chances are slim to none. Slim to none.”
“You don’t understand,” I said. “I’m done trying. I’m done.”
My mind flipped over the past year. An album of photographs tinged in sepia. There were the nights when the snow piled up and he didn’t come home, didn’t call, or I woke to find him crumpled on the sofa with his face crushed into the pillow. There were the silent dinners, the only sounds coming from the scrape of a fork and knife on ceramic plates. When we were caught in a room together, we could conjure up a fifteen minute conversation about the weather. I couldn’t remember what it felt like to kiss him or the smell of his aftershave or the last time he made me smile. I couldn’t remember the last time I smiled.
Benjamin came over and reached out to hold me. I was small enough that his arms could wrap all the way around. I stayed for a second too long and then twisted out of his arms and left the room.
The third time it happened was six months ago. The sharp pangs sliced into my stomach and woke me at midnight. The sheets felt damp and I yelled for Ben over and over. He came quickly but stood frozen at the doorway as if in the presence of a wild animal. I tore the sheets off the mattress frantically. My eyes adjusted to the thick darkness and I could see the pale sateen sheets stained with a dark puddle.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, tugging at his hair.
“It happened again.”
“Are you sure?”
“Look,” I pointed at the heap of sheets, like a miniature blue volcano.
“It might not be. You could be fine.”
“No,” I said.
I walked to my dresser shakily. Beside it was the large window, floor to ceiling, it was taller than me. We used to keep the blinds open all day and all night with the energy of the city streaming through the window. We never cared if the neighbors saw us at night. We were young, unbridled, willing to sacrifice sleep to discover each other in the dark. Then something changed, who knows when. We started to shut the blinds at night, blocking out the flashing streetlights and taxi headlights. Then we shut the blinds during the day so there was no light in our bedroom. The room shriveled up. It was too dark to notice the dust settling into the corners of the room that we never swept. Something changed, who knows what.
I pulled out a black pair of his sweatpants from the dresser, washed so many times they had softened to lamb’s wool. I steadied myself against the wall and put one leg in and then the other. I saw spots of red and leaned against the wall to breathe.
“Here,” Benjamin said. “Let me help.” He sat me on the bed, pulled off my nightgown and found a clean shirt and socks.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“No, I am. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. You know it’s not.”
“No,” he said. He reached out and cupped my face with both hands. Regardless of the weather, the time of day, or where we were, his hands were always warm. “Don’t apologize.”
That night, the streets outside were silent and cold. We took a cab to Lenox Hill and I rested my head on his shoulder with one hand on my swollen belly. Even in my loose, flowing tops, I could never hide it. I could never step outside without strangers smiling at me, starting light conversation with their faces glowing at the prospect of new life. It happened at the dry cleaners, on the 6 train, in the grocery store.
“So, when are you due?” a silver haired lady once asked. She stood behind me in line, skimming through the pages of a soap opera digest.
“Three months,” I told her.
She looked in my cart, taking note of the items: chicken salad, four grapefruit, and a tub of Chunky Monkey. I was struck with odd cravings each time. The last time only grapefruit juice would calm the nausea. It couldn’t be the kind in the carton, it had to be freshly squeezed. Before Benjamin went to work in the morning, he would twist two or three halves over the juicer and leave a pitcher in the fridge for me.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” she asked.
“It’s a girl.”
“Have you named her yet?”
I looked down as the cashier handed me the receipt to sign. We had named the last two: Lillian and Violet. We had turned the alcove in our bedroom into a nursery. There was only room for a white crib with red rods and a spinning mobile with dangling stars. I wanted to paint the three walls, but not the traditional pink or blue. We left the walls white and splashed them with bright colors like a messy No. 5. The day we painted it, I wore overalls and we splattered red and blue and yellow on the walls, giggling like five-year-olds finger painting. Afterwards, we collapsed into bed, both smelling like paint but not caring.
“Not yet,” I told the lady in the store. I placed a hand where I thought my daughter’s head was resting. “We’re waiting until we see her and then we’ll choose.”
She smiled and I knew she was a grandmother. The kind that spoiled her grandchildren, taking them for two scoops of mint chocolate chip before dinner and saying it would be their secret.
On my way home, I cradled the bag of groceries and took slow, cautious steps. I didn’t dare cross the street when the red hand was blinking. I let a neighbor help carry the bag upstairs. The whole time I repeated a girl’s name in my mind. I was waiting to say it out loud when the nurse placed her in my arms.
I thought of this on the way to the hospital. The images played in my mind like a film where you know it will not end well, but keep watching because of a sad curiosity to see how bad it will get. At the hospital, the doors of the emergency room opened and blew cold, sterile air at us. Benjamin scurried to find an abandoned wheelchair even though I didn’t need one anymore. He made me sit and pushed me to a spot in the corner while he filled out the paperwork. It didn’t take long as he had answered the questions before. He knew to check all the boxes that applied.
Alone in my chair, my shoulders shook as I cried. So many tears that I imagined a pool of water forming in my lap and spilling onto the floor like a waterfall. But of course that was impossible. All I did was dampen my shirt and draw the concerned glances of the strangers around me.
Once we returned home, I laid down on the floor of our little nursery. In the morning, there was a pillow beneath my head and a fleece blanket over me. The blanket was white with a galaxy of stars, red and blue and yellow.
We met six years ago in my flower shop. The shop was on the corner of 86th and Lexington with a red awning and white letters that said “Le Printemps.” It was my mother’s shop. Sitting on the high counter, I would watch her cut stems and mist leaves with water and flutter around the room. Sometimes, she would let me plant the seedlings. I would poke tiny holes in pots of soil with my finger, drop in the seeds, and wait for the green buds to peek through. After she died, I took it over. I couldn’t bear the thought of someone tearing down the awning and turning it into another liquor store or bagel shop or Baby Gap.
My favorite part of each morning was walking inside to the bursting scent of flowers. Such a stark contrast to the stale smells of the city. Regardless of the month, inside the shop was eternal spring, the pots of blooming lilacs and tulips and daisies. The refrigerated glass case at the front displayed bright sprays and buckets of single stems for anyone who wanted to create their own bouquet. I ordered all the supplies from a craft store on the corner. The cards were handmade from recycled paper pressed together with cotton and flecks of yarn. They were expensive but I didn’t want anything fake in the shop, only natural, beautiful things.
The day he walked in, I was wrapping white roses, rolling them into a cone of pale pink paper with a card that said Congratulations. I didn’t notice him. After we were married, he told me I looked like a princess in a fairy tale. I found the line sweet then, but years later, the thought made me cringe.
“Dammit,” I yelled when I pricked my finger on a rose stem. I let out a string of words and heard laughter from the front. This boy walked over, hands in his pockets, hair tousled like he had just woken up from a nightmare.
“You alright over there?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Sorry about that.”
“Why are you sorry?”
I stuck my finger in my mouth to stop the bleeding and tasted saltiness. “For yelling like that.”
“Don’t apologize. It’s amusing,” he said. He had a playful grin, like a boy who pulled the girls’ pigtails in elementary school. “Rather unexpected from a girl like you.”
“A girl like me? What does that mean?”
He took a step closer until he was right there in front of me. “I don’t know. You seem too sweet. Innocent.”
My surprise overcame my inclination to be embarrassed and I was silent. I can’t remember what I looked like that day. Most days, I let my hair fall down my back in messy blonde curls. I wore white often, dresses and skirts, because the entire shop was bathed in colors.
I studied him closely. He was more like a boy than a man. His sweatshirt said Duke and his jeans were faded with ripped patches and the only remarkable thing about him was his eyes. They were blue enough to cut glass.
“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe not.”
“Care to elaborate?”
“Care to tell me what you’re looking for?”
He laughed. “I’m looking to buy flowers.”
“For a special occasion?”
“For someone special?”
“Maybe.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe not. Do you have any favorites?”
I walked to the left corner of the room and brought back a square pot with a long crooked branch and tiny white, heart shaped blossoms.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“It’s an orchid,” I said. “A jewel orchid.”
“Doesn’t look like much.” He cocked his head in curiosity. “Maybe I’ll just get a dozen red roses. Don’t girls love red roses?”
“Rather unoriginal. And roses only last a few days. An orchid can last up to four months.”
“I’d have to water it, right? I don’t want anything too complicated.”
“Actually, they’re simple to care for,” I said. I took a card from the table that said For Someone Special and began writing. “Just water them once a week. Put an ice cube into the base to keep the soil moist. Keep them somewhere cool and dry. And don’t put them in the sun.”
“The petals are too sensitive. The sun will burn them. Orchids need bright, indirect sunlight. It’s a delicate balance.”
“Why are they your favorite?”
I stopped writing. “I’ve never been asked that before.” I reached out to touch a petal, light and so thin that a sharp pinch would tear it. “They’re pretty. But very fragile. You can’t be careless and forget about them, you have to take care of them. And if you wait long enough, they can bloom again.”
“How long do you have to wait?”
“About a year,” I said.
“That’s a long time.”
“It’s worth it.”
“Well,” he grinned. “You’ve just convinced me. How much do I owe you?”
After I rang him up, I wrapped the orchid in clear plastic and pinned the card to it. I handed it to him but he didn’t leave.
“Do you work here every day?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s my shop.”
“Maybe I’ll come back. My mother’s birthday is coming up.”
I smiled. “You’ll have to tell me if your girlfriend likes her orchid. And give her the instructions so she’ll know what to do.”
When he walked out the door, the bell on the door rang loudly. It kept ringing even after he crossed the street.
Just four months after we lost the second one, I became pregnant again. We made an appointment with a specialist in recurrent pregnancy loss. The acronym was RPL, but we never said it out loud. Doctor Levine was in her late forties, never married, and had eight nieces and nephews that she spoke of constantly. There were framed photos of them tacked on the wall beside her Ph. D from Cornell. She had wiry gray hair, wore long black dresses, and smelled of herbal cigarettes.
We arrived late for our appointment and Benjamin was angry with me. I changed clothes three or four times. My body constantly fluctuated between hot and cold and who knows what temperature the office would be. Finally, he kicked one of the sweaters that I had dropped on the floor of our bedroom and yelled at me that it didn’t matter.
In the doctor’s office, we were nervous and Benjamin kept shifting in his chair. After our polite hellos, she reviewed my medical history out loud, licking her finger as she flipped each page in the file. She listed dates and symptoms and hospital visits. I said nothing, but Benjamin confirmed all the details stoically. Finally, she looked only at me and asked how far along I was.
“Twelve weeks,” I said, without touching my belly.
“We had an appointment with our obstetrician last week,” Benjamin chimed in. “The ultrasound looks fine and the weight is normal.”
On her desk was one of those pendulums with tiny metallic balls suspended from wires that swing back and forth, back and forth. It was not therapeutic as much as hypnotizing and I began to count the clicks of it, numbing myself to the conversation. Finally, Doctor Levine reached out to stop the ball and gave her diagnosis.
“You should be aware that each time it happened, the chance of reoccurrence is significantly reduced,” she said. “Some women who have had difficulty, have gone on to have two or three healthy children.”
Benjamin grasped my hand but his palm was sweaty and I pulled away.
“Are you currently working?” she asked.
“Not anymore,” I said. “I owned a shop, but I sold it last year.”
“Good. It’s best that expecting mothers reduce stress as much as possible. I also advise an adjustment to your daily routine, refrain from any physical activity and don’t overexert yourself.”
“I’ll recommend some literature that can clarify precautions to take and some indicating symptoms. Also, let’s schedule some more visits in the upcoming weeks to conduct a few tests.”
Doctor Levine listed all the procedures I would need: blood tests and chromosome sampling and hormone injections. When we stood to leave, she reached for my hand, her eyes magnified in her thick glasses.
“One of the most important things to remember – you mustn’t give up. There’s still hope.”
We read all of the books. Sitting in the bookstore café with cups of tea and honey, we would read certain passages aloud to each other. After a few hours, Benjamin grew restless and would leave me there alone. I stayed until the manager of the store politely informed me that they were closing and offered me his arm to escort me out.
The books were filled with every piece of advice, every possible complication, everything that we shouldn’t do. I chopped off my blonde curls and stopped getting highlights. My roots grew in dark and ugly. I gave up the glass of Cabernet I used to enjoy in quiet evenings when the snow fell. We stopped going out for dinner, fearful of cigarette smoke or poorly cooked food. There were invitations from friends for weekends in South Hampton to which we declined. I couldn’t handle the jerky three hour car ride, the heat, sharp pebbles of sand blown into my eyes. I began taking maternity yoga classes that made my ankles swell and did little to absorb my nervous energy.
Benjamin never said anything, but I knew he thought it was a little extreme. But I was convinced. I had hope. I believed. I could make things grow.
Towards the end, we stopped sleeping together. In our bed, I placed two pillows on either side of me to prevent rolling over onto my stomach. Ben slept on the lumpy sofa.
After it happened the first time, I stayed overnight in the hospital for the D&C and was sent home the next day with antibiotics to prevent infection. I stayed in bed for seven days and seven nights. Benjamin took off three days of work. He only left the apartment once, to go to the shop and hang the Closed sign in the window.
I kept the blinds open so the sun filled our bedroom. We watched black and white movies in bed, ate cold noodles out of cartons with our fingers, and played games of Scrabble. When we slept, he kept a hand on my belly, an unconscious habit that he had developed during the night.
That first day he went back to work, he showered and crawled back into bed with me. Before he left, he kissed me on the forehead and told me to answer the door if someone came.
The apartment buzzer rang a few hours later. I dragged myself out of bed. In the bathroom mirror, my eyes were a dull blue, damaged. I splashed cold water on my face and went to the door. There was a man in a red shirt with Florist etched in white letters. He held a flower wrapped in clear plastic. I could see the long branch sticking out and the thin white blossom at the end. There was no card.
Every hour, for the rest of the day, there was a delivery. Some of them were white or purple, others were the palest pink like a little girl’s ballet tutu. They filled the kitchen and the dining room. I put them in the corners, far from the windows but close enough that the sunlight could reach them. It is a delicate balance. And even under ideal conditions, there is no certainty that orchids will bloom again.