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Fall 1999, Volume 17.1

Fiction

 

Susan Sonde photo of Susan Sonde.

Ghost Lover


Susan Sonde's fiction has appeared in
Quarterly West, Carolina Quarterly, The Ohio Review, and many others. She is the winner of "The Capricorn Book Award" for her poetry collection, In The Longboats With Others (New Rivers Press).

 

Julie watched the night sky turn gray through the bedroom windows.

Beyond the windows, rain beat noisily against the deck's wooden floors.

For more than an hour she had lain awake in anticipation of the dawn. Now she rose and kneeled in the semidark in an effort to locate her slippers. During the night she had left the window partially open; Michael came over and closed it, kicking the slippers inadvertently beneath the bed.

Michael stirred; he brought his arms from under the covers.

"God," he moaned.

Holding his hands towards the light, he made the sign of the cross with his forefingers: "you'd think they'd cancel. If it's this way now, the rink will be too steamed up to see anything tonight." Julie retrieved her slippers and rose. "Pack warm," she said, "I don't think the rink's enclosed."

Michael stepped from the bed; remarkable how much he and Jamie resembled one another: father and son—same lanky stride, same elongated torso.

Jamie was a man now, a junior in college. She was not going to miss Jamie's game; especially not the first of the season. She stepped out of her nightgown, tossed slippers and nightgown into the suitcase, then hurried to the closet to hide her nakedness. It was shame she felt, a sense of discomfort for her naked body. Though Michael was a good looking man, he had grown thick in the neck and a little paunchy. Looking at Jamie, she could see the man Michael had been.

Living with Michael, Julie felt stripped to the bone. He seldom let her know what he was thinking. He was a quiet man who held his own council. For a long time now, sex between them had been all but nonexistent.

Her father had been a mentalist on the college circuit: charismatic, but somehow always in a rage. His moods were unpredictable; there were endless battles between her parents. As for the act, he constantly tested it out on them, the way he tested out on them every troubling emotion he had. Being with him was an enormous strain, like being wheeled into surgery. She was the patient on the gurney, the focus of attention, the object under the bright lights waiting to be cut open.

At first Michael was her savior, her island in the storm: safe territory, nurturing. In the beginning there was peace: wall to wall peace. It didn't matter that on occasion Michael seemed emotionally distant. Peace cost one. They were two countries side by side, with tariffs and trade agreements, and rigid, well-patrolled borders. Not that Michael was unkind, he simply protected his borders, shielded himself from her by putting up high walls. It was all Julie could do to try to scale them. Gradually she gave up, and the price for that? The suppression of feelings, the thought that she would burst like a punctured balloon—a crazy-making feeling, with emotions piling up on her side. There was a war going on, and if she believed him, she was the aggressor, the bombs launched from her side, somehow falling back on her side.

Michael was a criminal trial lawyer; a certain amount of unwanted notoriety clung to him. Julie was a painter of abstracts; her paintings decorated Michael's office, and the offices of some of his partners. Although her talent was recognized locally, beyond this she had not achieved the recognition she craved. She hadn't even managed to break some of her old color habits. The best one could say about her work was, she had amassed a body of it that was consistent. Well, she didn't want to be consistent. She wanted to break the rules, to soar with the best of them, and show Michael she could. It was clear he was aware of the keenness of her mind; it was also apparent he took her for granted.

Her work, he said, kept her out of mischief. It was a sad commentary that she could not come up with something constituting mischief. She had lost touch with the irreverent part of herself; she had put on hold all mischief-making venues, and myth too. Myth played a big role in the early days of her career; it was the ethos of one's art, the defining moment.

A woman with whom she graduated painted cloud images onto water towers and fuel tanks. She left her mark all over the country. One could not avoid seeing the objects rise on the outskirts of major cities; whenever Julie spotted them, she remembered all those things she hadn't done.

Living with Michael left her feeling empty. No wonder she did not want to give herself to him, her ghost lover; it was too much like engaging in self-love. He might retreat in the middle of climax. How foolish she would look clutching herself.

Jamie was the best thing that had happened to her, and, after a period of adjustment in his teenage years, he was towing the mark, settling in to a career in communications. Jamie was wide open, he didn't clutch, nor retreat the way Michael did. He discussed his feelings openly, the state of his lovelife, the nature of his friendships. Jamie was an open book. She read his moods in his deep brown eyes, intense eyes that stared deeply into hers.

Fog rolled in over Baltimore-Washington International. Their eight twenty-five flight was delayed until eleven.

They kept their luggage; a light carry-on packed for over night.

"Should I try calling him?" she said.

"Whom?"

Julie sighed, "Jamie, of course. To tell him we'll be late, and not to worry."

Michael was up to his ears in newspapers: the Washington Post, yesterday's Wall Street Journal, and several editions of the New York Times. He also had work to finish before the weekend. He was flying to Dallas on Monday for a meeting.

The newspapers lay in a pile on the seat next to Michael; his briefcase sat on the floor before him—a satchel, wide open like the jaws of a dog.

"Give me the calling card number," she said.

Michael had numbers memorized, including Jamie's in Syracuse.

He recited the numbers while Julie wrote them down.

Whereas Michael was a telephone directory, storing numbers at will, pulling them out of his brain when he needed them, Julie was on bad terms with numbers.

She dialed, got, not Jamie, but his answering machine: voice over with guitar accompaniment. And though she was disappointed, eight-thirty on a Saturday morning, she couldn't say she was surprised. They had been due in around eleven. Now they would arrive early afternoon; enough time for Jamie to grab a bite and load up the car with his equipment.

"What did he say?"

"Nothing."

"Old boy still sleeping."

Julie shrugged.

"Sit down," said Michael, "pull up a piece of paper. The world's full of news today."

She didn't care about the news. There would always be news. The news was far away, while what she cared about sat directly outside the airport windows, a foggedover world, shrouded in fog so one couldn't see the planes landing or taking off.

Nine o'clock and Michael hadn't stirred from behind his papers; the wall that kept her out. In a relationship as soured as theirs, it was she who always grabbed hold of the emotional short stick, she who was always ready to explode. Michael didn't have emotions; he had approaches to situations. What Julie viewed as crises, Michael took in stride.

Julie dialed Jamie's number again. Jamie had once complained about his father's inability to communicate and it had created a bond between mother and son.

"Where are you?" said Jamie.

"We've been delayed."

"Where's dad?"

"Here, with me."

"Doing what?"

"Reading mostly."

"Well, tell him to put it away and get psyched for my game."

Michael loved them; only he didn't know how to show it—as if he were afraid to show it. If she didn't know better, Julie would say there was fear, of others wanting too much from him.

Julie drew her coat a little tighter. She hated damp weather and preferred snow. There was something definite about snow.

The trip would take them over Pennsylvania and the northeast corner of New York State. She hoped the airsick pills would hold; she'd taken them two hours ago. The box said good all day. She didn't believe it.

Michael waited till the last minute to gather up his things. Out of spite she moved to the embarkation line without him. Serve him right, she thought, if he missed the plane.

She sat at the window. Michael climbed in beside her. A window seat gave you a measure of control; the feeling you could judge not only the plane's height, but, from the tilt of the wings, its position in the air. It was like holding a level up to the sky.

The airport at Syracuse was fogbound; a light drizzle fell.

The rental car was big, built for the snow, but there was no snow. The fog disconnected her from the familiar. Michael had been Michael for the duration of those two years.

Jamie's dorm looked like a bomb shelter, cement blocks built below grade. Jamie's door was second in a long line of doors. Julie stepped down into a concrete vestibule and knocked. Jamie threw the door wide and took her in. Behind him the little room with its desk and bed was warm and cozy. A sliding glass door gave out on the fog. The room was designed on an open plan, everything immediately visible. She recognized Jamie's things; they were her things: potholders, pots, silverware. He had mounted pictures: baby pictures of himself, the obligatory photo of Michael and Julie; separate photos of each of them, and pictures of his grandparents. His computer sat on his desk, connecting him to every online service in the school.

Julie sat on Jamie's bed. She recognized the blankets and sheets the two of them had gone shopping for only days before he left. Behind her, heat radiated from a wall vent. She shivered in the warmth of it, settled back on the bed, and fell asleep. Michael moved to the bed. He rested his hand on her shoulder. When she woke, she woke hungry.

Jamie hauled a carton down from a shelf.

"Mom, I've got plenty to eat," he said, shoving miniature Hershey bars at her.

All Jamie had wanted was to wear a college jersey since graduating from high school. He hadn't made a varsity team, but his team traveled, and that's all that seemed to matter.

"The coach has me playing center," he said, "and, there's a possibility he'll make me captain."

Jamie'd scored a couple of goals; his last few practices convinced him tonight's game would be a triumph. He had the respect of his teammates. The coach, only a year out of Syracuse himself, had the team under control. It was going to be a night for a celebration.

Julie put Jamie on the ice when he was three, and he'd shown talent even then. His stroking was strong and he was fast.

Her fondest memories had been of watching Jamie skate; waking him up early for a game had meant suiting up a sleeping child at home and carrying him to the rink in his skates. On the ice he came awake, a boy eclipsed by his equipment; watching him, she fell in love over and over.

It was four o'clock. The game started at five-thirty. There was a stop in a Wendy's to get Jamie something to eat.

"You need food in you," she said, when he left the sandwich on the car's back seat.

"Too psyched," he said, streaking past her into the rink.

Michael dragged behind. He never liked the coldness of rinks and spent a good part of every game standing in the warming rooms, his hands around a cup of hot chocolate. Tonight's game was different. They had come a long way, and Michael was committed. In Jamie's early skating days, Julie transported him to most of the games, and, because of the demands of Michael's work, to all the practices as well.

Jamie planted a kiss on top of Julie's head; how tall he had grown. He hoisted his hockey bag over his left shoulder and walked off to change, right thumb in the air, a signal that meant: "score one for you."

She was proud of the fact that he was fast and could skate with grace.

A light layer of fog drifted from the ice; the Zamboni made its last sweep. The skaters emerged. She looked for his distinctive style; the long, sweeping strokes; the elegance and deep flex of the knees; the torque of his upper body in the turns like that of a figure skater. The team was lining up to shoot. Some of the skaters were down on the ice doing stretches. On the bench a boy stood, turned so she could see the back of his jersey. Number twenty-four. It was Jamie. She gave him a thumbs up.

The coach stood behind his players, a young, dark-haired man in an insulated vest.

"What's up," said Michael.

The first line went out; Jamie remained on the bench. "He's saving him," she said, "but why? Look at the center, he's a runt; Jamie is tall, why doesn't he play Jamie?"

"Don't sweat it Julie, this is just the first period."

The second line went out. From the bench Jamie waved. It was a feeble wave, as though he had caught the gist of her thinking. Another short center. Center was Jamie's position. He didn't hog the puck, saw an opening and passed the puck up. Why was the coach keeping him on the bench? The first period was almost over. Jamie's team had scored without him. All this way to see him play, and so far he was sitting out the game. Michael went inside and came back with hot coffee. "Coach play him yet?" he said.

She was having trouble responding, feeling Jamie's pain.

Jamie raised his hand in salute—a brave gesture, an attempt to reassure her.

Out of the corner of her eye she watched Michael climb one of the benches. Steam issued from his cup.

Suddenly Jamie was on his feet, moving out with the line—but he was playing the boards, wing, a position he hated.

"What the fuck was that?" said Michael.

Julie was like an engine overheating. Jamie's time on the ice had been laughable; no more than seconds.

The first period was over and the players filed out. She worried about Jaimie's temper. But behind his mask, his face looked passive and pale; she preferred his anger. When they left Syracuse tomorrow, she didn't want to leave behind a defeated boy, but the boy she was used to, for whom she was not afraid.

The team retreated to the dressing room. Parents stood in clusters laughing. Their sons were being played.

Julie walked to a section of the ice where she could be alone. The cold drove up her feet, took on life and became the enemy. She was more like her father than she cared to admit, was not un-invested like Michael. Then, Jamie wasn't like Michael either. He had too much fire in him. She could brood over the resemblances, that would not get Jamie on the ice, so long as the coach wasn't willing to play him.

His participation in the game was something she wanted and his being held back hurt. There was shame for her in it too. He had been singled out.

She was needy. One could see through to her needy core, like a twin her body harbored, cells that had not come together normally at birth: greedy little twin: greed and envy that showed. She was envious even of Jamie sometimes, his opportunities, his freedoms.

`Don't take it personally,' that was what Michael would say; but she was always taking things personally. Jamie being kept off the ice was not something she should have to get used to. Well, this was now, and now she was feeling abandoned, the lack of intimacy; Michael uncomplaining in its absence. A marriage that wasn't a marriage. A life that wasn't a life, and finally, a game that was being played without her son.

At the end of the first half of the game the coach came into the warm-up room. He purchased a hot drink and sipped from the cup.

"I'm the mother of number twenty-four," she said, approaching him. There was a tremor in her voice. "I've come a long way to watch him play."

"I'm sure," he said, "and, I'm sorry for the way it's working out; but he's a bit of a loose cannon."

Jamie's aggression. A hockey player without aggression was not a player. The fans expected it. Her mood plummeted. "How do you know, you haven't played him much, you've hardly played him at all?"

"I don't always make the right choices, but I try to do my best."

"You shouldn't have done that," said Michael. He'd been in the warm-up room and overheard her. "It was more to satisfy your ego than Jamie's."

"And you," she said, "you're his father and choose to do nothing."

"I know who I am, I know who he is."

Michael stamped to warm his feet. He embraced himself with his gloved hands. Inwardly she cried, for Michael, for herself, for what they no longer had.

The final period was coming up and Jamie's team was losing. On the bench Jamie sat ramrod straight, except for a slight dip of his shoulders.

"What do you think," she said, trying to keep the need from her voice, "what's to risk putting the kid out there now, they're already losing?"

"You take the game too seriously," said Michael.

`And you,' she wanted to say, `don't take it seriously enough.' But how would saying it matter? She fed the thought to her twin, to her hungry sister cells, and watched the fog begin to build on the ice; the exhalations and sweat of the skaters combine in vaporous clouds, as if this were the runway in Baltimore and the plane was ready to take off; only there wasn't going to be a takeoff, a revving of engines; only the earthbound who remained behind and the fog that encircled them.

A large pile of snow lay outside the side door of the rink where the Zamboni deposited the ice it shaved from the surface.

The buzzer sounded, signaling the end of the game, and Jamie hadn't been put out. She could read his body language, and there, in the slightly hangdog look was his disappointment.

At the far end of the rink the doors slid open and the Zamboni drove in. The sky beyond the Zamboni was maroon, soaking up the city's distant lights, while snow fell in big, heavy flakes. The teams were off the ice. Julie stepped to Jamie's side, but the boy kept on as if he didn't see her.

She recalled Jamie phoning from Syracuse once to describe a storm: "when it snows here it sets in for days and doesn't let up."

She considered the possibility of being stranded, and stepped outside to see this New York snow. She raised her head to the sky and the cold forced her eyes closed.

Michael came out with Jamie in his street clothes. Usually, Jamie threw an arm around her after a game; usually he was out there playing and winning. After a game she was treated like an older sister, one of the `boys.' She loved that camaraderie, the closeness he adopted with her.

She held back, watched him come towards her; waited to feel his arm drop around her, but he stopped.

"You gave it away, mom," he said. "I know what you did, I saw you." Then he passed her, and looked in passing, as if he knew something, as if the something he knew was more than enough to fill the air between them. The snow came down in thick clusters, complex multiples into which she looked striving to spot the highest ones among them, making a kind of game of it before they descended, lit upon her eyes and melted.

 

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