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Winter 1995, Volume 12.1

Fiction

 

Jeanne Cunningham

Afraid to be Scared


Jeanne Cunningham (M.F.A., University of Massachusetts) teaches English at the University of New Orleans. Her stories have appeared in
Calliope, The Coe Review, Maryland Review, Puerto del Sol, and Negative Capability. She is currently working on a novel.

You'd think I'd be grateful for the quiet after listening to their constant yammerings for nearly a week now. But instead, the silence in the house threatens to split the ceiling, then my head. I look up and picture a long crack start out as a slow zigzag, then run straight down the center.

"I think I'll go for a bike ride," I announce.

"Now?" Nance says. "It's too late to start now."

My husband looks up. "Be back before dark."

"I will," I call on my way out the door, not looking back.

There's a tangle of bikes in the shed. I grab the first bike I see, afraid Nance will convince my husband it's too late and they'll try to stop me.

Once on the bike path, a strip of blacktop about four feet wide, I decide, for no particular reason except that I need a destination, to go to the supermarket on the edge of the resort. Before I get going good, I cross a road. Then I'm going too good. This is a racing bike, and I'm not used to it. The handlebars curve down, forcing me to hunch over, and to put on the brakes I either have to inch my hands down and under, a hard move when you're in a hurry to stop, or let go and make for the brakes in one quick motion. Plus the bike is fast. My body whistles through the air like a whip even when I'm coasting.

I skirt the golf course, which is being watered. The sprinklers look like fountains spewing silver pins. Showers of them prickle my skin, bringing me more to life.

At the bottom of a shallow hill I see a father and daughter rounding the curve. My first thought is, how can she see? Her long, fine bangs come down to her eyelashes. A single green ribbon is knotted around the father's wrist. I guess it must have slipped out of her hair. They're indelibly connected, I think. I'm staring so hard at the ribbon I have to angle my bike sharply to avoid hitting them and yet make the curve at the same time. The back tire skids, and bike and I slide into the gravel at the edge of the path.

The father gets off his bike. "Are you all right?"

"Fine, fine." I get up, dusting gravel off my knees and hands as if they weren't bleeding.

The father hesitates, torn between the contradiction of what I say and how I look. I don't wait; I pick up my bike and wave. "Thanks anyway."

I walk the bike through a rather short, narrow tunnel which goes under the road overhead. The tunnel is like an enlarged pipe of corrugated tin. The smear of blood on the white handlebars in the fading light reminds me of the pink on the end of the pregnancy test stick I did the morning before we left on this trip. I guess it's appropriate that pink represents life. I didn't tell Jay; I didn't want to tell him and then have to spend the day driving up here with Nance and Steve. Actually, I didn't want to come with them at all. Jay and I are always having conversations about this. Nance and Steve depress me. But it's not only Nance and Steve. Lately just about everybody depresses me. But Jay likes doing things with other people. He worries that if we don't socialize with other couples somehow we, as a couple, will disintegrate. So I try to cooperate when I can. Though I really don't think it could happen, I guess secretly I'm afraid Jay and I will end up like Nance and Steve. It seems the sound of my heartbeat is amplified by the tunnel, and I'm glad when I come out on the other side. I can spot the supermarket through the pines.

The light is stark and rich at the same time—so thick it looks as though someone has slathered it over the landscape with a paintbrush, and yet it makes each pine needle stand out in relief. It seems a sin to have a muddled conversation in such light, yet we have one, the four of us, every afternoon on the deck before dinner.

"Did you see that Brigitte Nielsen and Sly Stallone are divorcing?" Nance said, lighting a cigarette and crossing her legs.

"She's been linked with that football player," Jay said.

"I tell you what," Steve said, "if I ever found myself single, I'd never marry again."

I looked over at him, surprised. Steve had moments of clarity which always astonished me because they were so few and far between. Maybe he actually had more but seldom voiced them, though I doubted it.

Nance, his wife, crossed her arms. "Thanks a lot," she said, flipping her sandal off and catching it between her toes.

"No offense it's just too hard," Steve continued, shaking his head.

My sentiments exactly, I thought, but I dared not say them. Even though I love Jay, and we have some great times together, it's hard not to be able to say what's on my mind a lot of the time. He takes things so personally. Take Steve's comment. If I had said that, he'd wonder why everything involving him wasn't smooth and easy. After all, his mere presence should render it that way. Therefore, the problem must be me, according to him. It was my perception of him that was off. If I tell him he's taking what I said too personally, he says, "Too personally? How should I take it? Impersonally? I thought relationships between husbands and wives were supposed to be personal."

Which all goes to prove my point that marriage is too hard.

"I don't know," Jay went on, balancing his drink on the arm of his chair.

"Face that world out there alone every day? No thanks. At least if you're married you can come home and talk about all the shit you were up against. Fortify yourself for the next day."

I pictured my zipping up Jay's wetsuit, helping him fortify himself against the shit he would encounter as soon as he opened the door.

I shiver. Just a moment ago the sun was visible over the nearest hill; now it's barely light. It sure goes from one extreme to the other fast around here, I think, and wonder if the alien environment is responsible for changing my perspective. I round the pond.

At the side of the supermarket I dangle my legs and scoot off the bicycle seat so I can examine my reflection in the plate glass window. It seems to me that my body looks more ample all over, like a country girl's, though my stomach is still flat. Not for long though, I think, and my shoulders slump slightly in the reflection. I don't want to lose my figure, even temporarily. I'm afraid men won't look at me, or will look at me as if I'm their mother. I remember suddenly, in a quick series of images, the first time I made love, the first time I went to a bar, meeting Jay for the first time, going out with him, moving in with him, our wedding, and I think, Is this all it comes to? I turn my bike back toward the cottage because I don't know where else to go.

I zip around the pond again, wondering why no one else is out. By the time I get back to the tunnel I know why—it's getting too dark to see. The air is the same color as the corrugated tin of the tunnel.

But now I notice there are three tunnels, all shooting off in different directions. One I can discount immediately; it leads off out of the resort area. I try to see through the others to the point where I saw the father and daughter and fell off the bike. I think I see the path curve at the end of one of the tunnels and turn my bike into it, confident I've chosen correctly. But when I get to the other side of the tunnel I don't see any slow upward rise out of the curve. My heart jolts. Don't panic, I think, just turn around, go back through, and take the other one. Something you won't be able to do so easily once you have a baby, I think.

Now it's almost totally black. I can't see a thing except when I pass a house whose light happens to reach far enough to outline the trees on either side of me. I bend forward, concentrating hard. Keeping the front wheel pointed straight ahead is like trying to cut a straight line on a long piece of unmarked black chiffon. I go as slow as I can under the circumstances, which is not all that slow. The bike is a fast one and I'm beginning to get a little scared I won't be able to find the cabin, so I pedal steadily. Though I don't know why I'm so worried about not finding the cabin. Nance is probably running through yet again what happened right before she left the city.

"I left two messages on their machine," she said, "and they didn't return my calls. Don't you think that's downright rude?"

Would it have been more polite, I thought, for them to call and say, "Sorry, we decided not to go with you as our decorator—we can't stand your ideas." "I simply can't understand why they wouldn't like it," she went on. "Black and white is all the rage now. I even went to a party where no one was dressed in color, and all the food was black and white too. The centerpiece was cauliflower surrounded by black olives. It was so beautiful. Can't you imagine how beautiful it looked?"

Since I can't see a curve coming until I'm right on it, I react spastically every time, jerking the bike slightly right or left. When I coast, I listen for other bike chains, not knowing whether to welcome or fear them.

Steve could be out, having had another of his activity attacks. After Nance had finished discoursing about her unacknowledged failure of a decorating scheme, Steve had bounced up, "Activity attack!" and jogged off. At other times he went horseback riding, water skiing, or hiking. I laughed. I liked Steve in spite of the fact that most of the time his conversation consisted of topics such as the difference in gas prices in different parts of the country, and why Princess Diana could have as many children as she wanted to.

Finally I come around the stretch bordering the golf course. I can tell because I can hear the sprinklers. The fine spray douses me and I hunch my shoulders, duck, and try to wipe my arms dry with my hands. The cabin isn't far from here.

I walk the bike across the road even though there are no cars within earshot. But I can afford to go slow now, I'm almost home. When I get to the other side of the road however, my front wheel crunches underbrush instead of blacktop. I get off the bike again and walk it down the shoulder of the road so I don't miss the point where the path emerges. The darkness is palpable—every moment I'm pushing through a curtain but there's always another one behind it. Finally I see a break in the line of trees, but what if the path I want is down the road the other way? What if I'm one of those people who shouldn't ever get married, let alone have children? Stop it, the other side of my brain says, you're just scared because of the baby: it's a new situation, and besides, your hormones are going wild.

Right away it's a steep uphill run. I don't remember a long downhill glide on the way to the store, but I keep pumping anyway because I don't know what else to do and I am so cold. What few houses I pass are dark. When the hill levels off I pause. An image of Jay and me, yoked together like two oxen, passes over my mind like the shadow of a cloud. We work so well together as a team: I rinse the dishes and stack them in the left sink; he loads the dishwasher; while I go to the grocery, he vacuums the house (so I won't be underfoot). We pull together, we're attuned to each other's movements, but sometimes when we take off the yoke at night, all we do is rest. The quiet starts to settle in, and I'm afraid if I don't move quickly I'll never move again. Then I hear the faint clicking of a bicycle chain some distance, I think, ahead of me. "Hey," I yell out. "Wait up. Please." I feel ridiculous, shouting out to strangers. "I think I'm lost." I swallow hard. How can I be lost in the middle of a planned resort?

I listen carefully but hear only the wind. The moon comes out from behind the clouds for a moment, large and white, illuminating the tops of the trees tossing against the sky. I take advantage of the light to see if anything looks familiar, but all the houses are of the same design and built of the same materials—like the people we rented the house with. Nance stands by the side of the pool with her two daughters. The little girls' pigtails are tied with multi-colored curling ribbon. The expressions on their faces are bored, sullen. They are not eager to jump in the water; no wonder—they're probably afraid to mess up their hair. Nance has a vacant look on her face, like a zombie. Even her shadow looks dull, like it would plod instead of slide or skip. She's not aware anyone is looking at her and would be appalled if someone snapped a picture right then, especially her husband, a former photographer, who she has fooled into this way of life. There he stands now, slightly behind her and to the right, with the same zombie stare. Then the youngest girl shrieks because she has gotten splashed, and the stop-action ceases. Daddy takes a deep breath and springs into action, his shadow anything but nimble.

The only way I'd be able to tell our cabin would be that it was one of a pair nestled together in a clearing. I wonder how many pairs are nestled together in a clearing.

Jay and I have discussed our friends over drinks. "They're so busy running away from themselves," I say. "Nance can't stand to admit she'd ever lose a customer, and Steve can't bear the fact that he stays with her—so he has activity attacks to get away from her."

"So?" Jay says. "Have you met some new, interesting people you'd like to come up here with?"

I think I'd rather come only with you, but I don't say this because that's frightening too. Being alone with Jay somehow clenches the yoke.

The moon drifts back behind the clouds and I rise up from the seat to continue pedaling uphill, though I am beginning to have the sense that I'm on the wrong track—just as during a trig test in high school I'd be trying to work out an equation and get the feeling I was on the wrong path and keep on doggedly at it anyway because I didn't know any other way to try it. Nance is never going to tell me, let alone herself, her innermost thoughts, and I'm never going to dress up my daughter, if I ever have one, like a pretty package to be unwrapped while I stand by with my mind blanked out.

As I reach the top of the hill the moon appears again, this time between tangled, thin branches. I look around. Not a house in sight. Without even thinking this time, I call out, "Jay! I'm here!" but my voice is too shy. I try again, "Ja-aay!" This time it rings clear—not that it makes any difference—I don't think there's anyone to hear it. I turn around and start coasting back down the hill, calling out anyway. The wind stings my eyes and brings tears to them. The bike is out of control and could shoot right onto the road into the path of an oncoming car. Still a full minute passes before I inch my right hand down to squeeze the brakes. As if in approval, a house with dim lights appears to my left. In a second I'm off the bike, trotting it over a bed of damp pine needles. I fly up the steps to the deck, then knock politely on the sliding glass door. Inside, there's no movement. The place looks like a closed-down movie set. I keep knocking anyway, harder and in a monotone rhythm. "Please be home, somebody," I plead in a soft voice that nobody could hear even if there were anybody to hear it.

Finally I lie down on my back on the deck. The clouds have blown away and the stars are out in full force. They look so close, as if they're confronting me, I turn over on my side. With no city lights, the sky looks like a dark dome with secret messages encoded in the arrangement of the stars. The stars appear to be pulsating earthward. I think of the black dome of sky as a cap which will clamp onto my head. The light of the stars will pulsate into my brain and then I'll know which way to go.

I hear some boyish laughter in the distance, and the unmistakable advancing of bicycle chains. I jump off the deck, skipping the steps, grab my bike, and head for the path I was on, visible now by starlight. "Help!" I shout when I can see them approaching.

They extend their legs from the pedals to the ground to stop. "What's wrong?" a deep voice says at the same time an alto one says, "What's up?" as if in planned harmony. They look at each other and all three of us laugh.

"I'm lost," I say then.

"Where're you staying?" His deep voice rolls into me the way vibrations from a drum do when the band stops in front of me at a parade.

"Mulberry Road," I say, feeling silly, but then I didn't name the streets here.

The other one shrugs. "Don't know it."

The first one says, "I'm Jerry and this is Scott. Why don't you tag along behind us? We might go past your place on the way to ours."

"Thanks," I say. I'd follow that voice anywhere. How old is this guy, I wonder. He has to be at least 18 to sound like that.

Scott goes first. I'm riding as fast as I can but pretty soon I can hardly see Jerry in front of me. Before I can call out to him, he looks back over his shoulder, then shouts ahead to Scott, "Wait up. You're going too fast for her."

I think I'm about to cry but stop myself. If I started, I'd melt into a puddle of tears.

Every few minutes Jerry looks back. "You keeping up okay?" he says, and, "Does any of this look familiar?"

I shake my head, realizing as I do he can't see me in the dark. "The last thing I recognized was the golf course—that was before you two came along."

"Do you know your way from the golf course?" His voice hits me in the stomach again.

I laugh. "In the light I do." I feel as if a rope, like an umbilical cord, connects me to deep within Jerry, where his voice comes from.

I don't even care if we ever get anywhere. We ride for what must be miles, then pant our way up a hill that goes on for about five minutes. I had no idea this resort was so huge, or that the bike paths were so intricate.

Then I begin to wonder when we're going to arrive—a luxurious thought—when Jerry calls, "Here we are." They cut off the path across a yard and throw their bikes down. I let mine fall. I have no sensation in my legs; I put my hands on my thighs and they feel like foam rubber as I climb the steps to the front door.

A black haired woman lets us in. She grins at the guys, her hand running over the top of Jerry's head as if she were petting him. The electric lights startle me. I hover near the door like a wild animal who's accidentally stumbled into a cottage.

The guys—long-limbed and tall but with that unmistakable way young adolescent boys have of ducking their heads—are no more than 14. It is strange to see what they look like after knowing them so intimately for what seems like such a long time but never seeing their faces. I look down, suddenly shy, like someone making love for the first time with the lights on.

"Sit down." The woman smiles and disappears into another room. Her hairstyle, short and curly, but extremely controlled, is like my mother's, but she looks young enough to be my age. The hollow sound of Jerry's steps as he bounds up the stairs rings in my head: I could be his mother.

I'm drawn to the fireplace, where I settle on my heels on the hearth. They're going to have trouble getting me to leave, I think.

Jerry returns, handing me one of those molded plastic coffee cups that's weighted on the bottom so it won't tip over. Knowing a 14 year old probably wouldn't pour me a drink, I wish for the next best thing—Coke—and it is. The bubbles in my throat spring some life back into me. He grins. Does he have any inkling of what was going on in my mind? Was anything similar going on in his? I lift the mug again and the rim covers my eyes. I hear him galloping up the stairs.

The mother comes back out with a dittoed brochure. "This is a map of the bike paths." She spreads it out in front of me on the floor. The maze of paths looks like a china plate that someone left in the oven too long. "We're here." She points to a tiny wavy line near the top of the page. "And here's Mulberry Road." She points to another tiny wavy line near the bottom of the page. "Using this map, you should be able to find your way home."

"In the dark?" I look into her eyes, hoping she'll see the look of utter terror in mine. If I have to go back out there now with nothing but a map, I know I'll die. They'll find me in the morning in a ditch alongside one of the bike paths.

She pats me on the knee. "If your bike'll fit into the trunk, I'll just take you home."

If the bike doesn't fit into the trunk, I think, you can have it. "Thanks," I say. "I couldn't face the dark again just yet."

Now that I know I'm not going to be left alone, or left alone all my life with the walking dead, I'm extremely talkative, even downright chatty. "You've done a good job with those boys," I say. "When I heard their bicycle chains coming I thought, oh God, these are going to be some typical kids—the kind you read about all the time who don't want to get involved. They're the only people I'm going to see until tomorrow morning and they're just going to laugh and leave me. Or maybe they'll let me follow them—it's no skin off their backs—but I won't be able to keep up. I'll be pedaling harder and harder, I'll be out of breath, and their voices will get fainter and fainter until they've disappeared altogether. I'll stop, drenched with sweat, the wind'll blow, I'll be shivering ." I stop, sit back in the seat. After all, I'm in a car, being driven home.

The woman pats me on the knee. I had to babble, and she let me babble. I needed someone to take me home, and she's taking me home. For a moment I envision her as a sponge, with an endless number of ways to absorb and to give. I feel slightly depleted by contrast, but then it strikes me that maybe you multiply your ways to absorb and give by the very fact of having children.

"Thanks for the compliment about the boys," she's saying, "but they're not both mine. Just Jerry. Scott's a friend he made since we've been up here."

"Jerry is great—I really don't know what I would've done without him."

She takes about 30 seconds before answering. "He's always been a good kid," she says.

"It must be hard to raise a good kid these days," I say, and mean it.

"It's not easy, but it's possible."

I suddenly feel tired and take another swig of Coke. The woman laughs abruptly, unexpectedly. "Just before we left the city, Jerry was out with some of his friends—a mixed assortment. They ended up moussing their hair different colors—magenta, burgundy, green. When he told me about it the next day, I asked him why he didn't do it. He said he didn't want to change his hair color. I thought, well, I must have done something right. At least he knows what he wants, and he has the confidence to stick to it."

I think of Nance's daughters with the ribbons in their hair. I wish Nance would give them some leeway, even now. How would they be able to make choices later if they never got to make them without disapproval when they were children?

As if reading my mind, the woman says, "You've got to give them a solid diving board, but then you've got to let them go ahead and dive."

She stops under what must be one of the half dozen streetlights in the whole resort and squints at a street name. Under the lamppost, surrounded by darkness, she appears to be in a spotlight.

Even in the car, it's hard to find our house. We circle back and finally make out the numbers on the gatepost.

While I lug the bike out of the trunk, the woman knocks for me. I come up behind her, thinking I'd better look a bit sheepish.

My husband opens the door. First he looks relieved, then he lifts his eyebrows. "What were you running away from?" he says, but then he adds, "How about a gin and tonic?"

What I'd like is a hug—but I'll settle for a gin and tonic at this point.

We both thank the woman. Nance drifts in from the rec room. "I told you it was too late to start on a bike ride," she says. She wrinkles her nose. "Whose cup is that?"

I realize I'm still gripping the mug even though the Coke has been finished for some time.

"And I bet you don't even know the name of that woman; you'll never be able to return it to her," Nance says. Then she walks over and puts her palm on my cheek. "It doesn't matter, you had too much on your mind."

That's not the reason, I think, but I smile at her anyway.

 

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