Today, Dr. Benjamin was wearing a powder-blue oxford shirt and a pair of ill-fitting khakis. He crossed his legs, revealing a swatch of argyle beneath the hem. "Have you been sleeping?"
"Not really," said Paula.
Dr. Benjamin nodded. He hunched over an Office Max legal pad, the kind that come three to a bundle. "Why do you think that is?"
Paula cleared her throat. "I mean, when I do sleep, it's almost worse."
"Nightmares?" said Dr. Benjamin. "We haven't talked about this."
"Well, there's a recurring one where this shadowy demon thing is reaching at me through my air conditioning unit. It kind of looks like the angel of death." Paula took out an Eclipse and lit it. "I always try to run away, but there's this massive force field thing that keeps my legs from moving. But it's not always that one—sometimes there's a war, and I have to watch. And then there was one last week where Jessie died in a motorcycle accident with Morgan Freeman. All her skin came off. Some real NC-17 shit."
"God." Dr. Benjamin had whiskers, a scraggled and boyish mustacheless beard that he liked to tug when he was about to tell her something difficult. "I've told you, you can't smoke in here."
"This is carbon." Paula tapped the tip of the Eclipse. "Stuff of life."
Dr. Benjamin got up and turned on the fan beside his desk.
"I'm taking initiative. Commend me."
The initiative, in point of fact, had come from Jessie's health teacher, Mrs. Manson. In April, Jessie had presented Paula with a contract drafted by Mrs. Manson's attorney husband, to be distributed among parents who "still smoked." Its terms (blustery and infused with the apocalyptic fervor that unsettled Paula in the presence of fitness people) dictated that she would cut down her daily smoking by one cigarette every month until she was over the habit entirely. Under Jessie's walleyed supervision, she'd kept to it pretty well.
But how could she explain to her daughter, a girl still young and good enough to mistake discipline for pleasure, the necessity of smoking—just that first one—every day? The primordial glint of sitting in her lawn chair by the mailbox, breathing grey into the wet pre-dawn air, watching the sky bruise over. How nothing else could raise her above the sludge of her thoughts. Perhaps that was the difference between children and adults, Paula thought: that the latter had incurred enough abuse to come to crave it.
"I think you're doing great," said Dr. Benjamin. "Bravo." He fiddled with his nose. "How's Jessie?"
"Busy." Paula looked around for an ashtray, then remembered she didn't need one. "She's got that counselor job and karate. Oh, and she's tutoring a kid twice a week."
"Does she seem happier?" Dr. Benjamin polished his glasses on his sleeve.
"Happier than what?"
Jessie had never been a joyous child. In kindergarten, she played fastidiously and alone, reading to herself or stacking blocks while the other kids played. She kept a written register of imaginary friends. And after Richard left, she stopped sleeping. Between eleven and midnight, she'd shuffle to Paula's bed in a whirl of anxiety, claiming nausea and horrible dreams. It wasn't until they moved to the apartment that they slept separately again. And now, in some slow-release transmission of misery, the night terrors had passed to Paula. She blinked at Dr. Benjamin through puffed eyes.
"We don't have to talk about Jessie," he said. "How are you feeling, other than tired?"
"We can talk about her." She sighed. "Whatever. No. I'm spaced out. My summer students are behaving. Richard proposed to his boyfriend last week."
Dr. Benjamin looked offended. "Whoa. Why didn't you tell me that from the get-go? This is huge."
Paula shrugged. "You and I don't talk about the divorce."
"We can. Maybe we should."
"What's to say?"
The divorce had been a fly-by-night operation. Jessie stayed with Paula's mother for a week while she and Richard divided their things, shoved all of it they deemed his into boxes, and timidly unknotted their joint finances. When their daughter came back, Richard would be removed immaculately—which, the parenting book had told them, was easier for a child her age.
On the night before he went, it seemed appropriate to make love. They had ordered a pizza (not that Paula lacked her usual array of kitchen supplies—cooking for him just seemed like a thing her friends would tell her not to do, if she had friends like Marsha and Joanne here in Florida, which she did not), and the bottle of wine they'd split with it sat between them on the box that had temporarily replaced the coffee table—Richard's brother had made the table, which had a habit of catching Paula's toes, so it sat with other relics of their married decade in a studio Richard had rented in Boca Raton.
"What?" Richard was dozing off in front of Seinfeld. "I mean, no."
"You faked it for a dozen years—what harm would another night do you?"
"What good would it do you?" he asked. Richard rested a foot on the table-box. In a plain grey tee shirt and Levis, hair still matted from hours of sweating, he was the version of himself she pictured most frequently when he was away. Casual husband. Young dad. Cereal commercial American.
"Don't you think we should do something special?" she said.
They went outside to look at the plants. It was February, which meant that Paula's basil and rosemary were in full gear. Illuminated by a bulb from the side of the house, they looked ominously brown in the night, almost poisonous. She wormed a toe through the dirt. The garden had been a compromise, the deciding factor that pried Paula away from her mother and the nostalgic clutches of Tuscaloosa. If a stand of herbs could survive down here, so could she.
Richard plucked off a basil leaf and put it in his mouth. "Promise me you won't let this die," he said.
"Shit, Rich, don't you think that's gilding the lily?" Paula cast an eye back toward the house. A knot had begun to form at the top of her throat.
When first he gave her the news, Paula's immediate thought was to return home. Jessie wasn't getting on well socially anyway, and she preferred Paula's nippy, wild-haired mother to the staid creature who'd raised Richard, an ivory-skinned woman in Coral Springs whom everyone simply knew as "bubbe." But Richard had anticipated Paula's reaction and laid down a starchy ultimatum. He'd continue paying for Jessie's education only if she stayed at the private day school in which she was currently enrolled—the one from which Richard himself had graduated twenty years prior. Otherwise, the money was gone.
It wasn't until much later, after she and Jessie had moved to the apartment and Paula had given up any hope of returning to Tuscaloosa before her daughter went to college, that she realized Richard was probably bluffing. She saw how tenderly he spoke to the girl—he'd just wanted her to stay close.
The morning Richard left, Paula put on the coffee. For a moment, she stood by the pot and listened to it burble, a sound she'd always considered conjugal. She heard Richard thumping his suitcase around. He'd get hungry on the plane.
The simultaneity of preparing Richard's breakfast and lunch dizzied Paula, compressed the day into a series of meals taken with and then without him. As the coffee became the dominant odor in the room, she folded slices of salami onto bread, applied a disc of provolone cheese, found some lettuce. She cut her finger slicing an apple.
When Richard came downstairs, only twenty minutes remained before she needed to take him to the airport. Outside, the sun had just begun to show. Paula picked at her oatmeal, handed Richard his.
She drove slowly on the way there. "I don't see why you have to fly all the way across the country to tell her," she said.
"You don't need to get it. This is my thing." Richard turned up the air conditioner. His mother was in Palo Alto visiting his older sister, who'd just had her second child. He planned to break the news of the divorce—and to come out to both of them—during the weeklong visit he and Paula had originally planned to take together.
"But don't you feel like that's taking the thunder away from Robin? I mean, she just had a kid."
"I know what I'm doing."
"Well, I think it's selfish. Then again, when have you ever thought—"
Richard turned to her. "Stop."
"Alright." Paula tried patting Richard's knee. It was something she'd never done before.
His face softened. "So when do you think they'll be done with all this shit they're doing to the highway?"
Paula could feel an ache beginning to pull at her nose, the backs of her eyes. "How many hours' time difference is it out there?"
"And will you call?"
"That might get weird," he said.
Paula slammed the steering wheel. "What we need is a fucking chip in our brains. Then I could just beam you when I wanted you."
"Paula, you have to calm down."
She dug in the door's side pocket for a tissue. "I just hate this. You know? I fucking do."
They drove the rest of the way to the airport in silence. Paula nearly missed the exit. In front of them, among signs directing them to various terminals and long- and short-term parking lots, a billboard offered free breakfast at the Holiday Inn. A red-headed boy with a fork in his hand grinned down at them over a stack of pancakes.
"Listen," said Richard. "Please be good to yourself." He took off his glasses, then put them on again. "Jessie needs it."
Paula pulled up to the curb outside the terminal and squeezed Richard's hand.
"I mean it," he said. "I know how you can get." He got his suitcase out of the trunk and held her while a cab honked behind them. On the grey-skied expanse of the concrete strip, Paula could feel herself flattening. The topography of days, of the weeks without him, shimmied and blurred in the chilly early sunlight. It was hard to tell one thing from another. "I love you," she said.
At home, Paula made a list. It seemed like a good thing to do when the world felt uncertain, when life found no convenient way to divide itself. She remembered some books she'd been meaning to read, a handful of movies to be rented from the video store, a walk through the neighborhood untaken since May. She used lined notebook paper; she scheduled two weeks. And then, suddenly feeling very busy, she led herself to the couch for a rest.
About Iowa Writes
Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.
In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.
Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.
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Mallory Hellman received an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a BA in English and American Literature from Harvard. Her nonfiction has appeared on the Forbes Booked Blog and in the Indiana Review, and her short story "October, Forest River" was a finalist for the Room Of Her Own Foundation's Orlando Prize. She has taught writing courses at Indiana University, the University of Iowa, the Duke Talent Identification Program, and elementary and secondary schools throughout Eastern Iowa. She's currently at work on a novel.
FIX, a chapter from Mallory's forthcoming novel, will be presented on the Daily Palette in three parts. Part 1 was published yesterday. Be sure to check back tomorrow for Part 3!
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