It would be months before she developed calming routines, learned to accept the petulant stasis of living without him. Paula was never one to be comforted by life's repetitions; each enactment, it seemed, counted down to something, chipped away at a finite collection of baths or grocery runs or takings out of trash that would eventually flatten to emptiness, to the hollow reverberation of nothing at all. Ritual made anti-memory; the only way to keep living was to change.
In her private assessment, a person with this sort of outlook should not become a teacher, but Paula did so anyway because kids understood her. This, a bald fact to anyone who observed it, felt to Paula like an insult. She had spent her college years a lackluster feminist (lackluster because those who took to the thing more seriously were cordoned off as unfuckable) and swore she'd spend the remainder of her life the childless executor of innumerable affairs. Then Richard happened; then Jessie.
But she'd tried, hadn't she? After graduating, she got a secretarial position in a posh dentist's office on the Upper East Side. There, she kept the appointment book and organized Doctor Tiefertahl's Rolodex. She was also, she thought, writing a novel. Language took flight in this city, absent the weighty, protracted vowels that kept it grounded in Tuscaloosa and it surged to her, whole or in parts, at her desk, in the shower, on the subway. When the language came, she penned it cautiously into a black perfect-bound composition book she'd bought at the Blick store by Pratt. She dated men who went to Pratt. She brought simple lunches to work in blue tupperwares and made stews on Sundays designed to last the week. She went to parties where it was better not to bring wine than to bring the wine she could afford. She stalked around the Chelsea galleries. She showed her novel to no one. She did everything right.
Most women Paula knew experienced a pinching in their late twenties, the sudden recognition that their young lives had begun to taper. The idea haunted them, not because their tenure of buoyancy would soon end, but because it already had. They typically reacted by having babies. But for Paula, it was the absence of that tightening that hurt. At twenty-eight, she still lived alone, in a brick of neat one-room apartments meant for college students. She quit her job at Dr. Tiefertahl's on the day of her six-year anniversary there; it seemed appropriate, Paula thought, to justify the decision by doing something else monumental, so she plundered the getaway fund she'd been keeping with admirable commitment since her arrival in the city and visited her mother's ancestral Ireland.
The decision was impulsive and its timing poor. Paula spent most of the trip dodging sleet. She brought the Blick notebook with the intention of airing it at pubs and on balconies, but her desire to write drifted curiously away in this place, so she kept still and waited. The fog prevented seeing much from her hotel room, which was small and dry and charming enough that she spent the better part of each day in it. In the late afternoons, she walked around the corner to a small grocery store and bought the makings for a cold meal. Twilight swallowed itself before five at this time of year, and with each passing day, she found it more difficult to leave the room before darkness descended. On the Friday she did (to visit the Blarney stone; she'd promised her mother), she encountered an American college student named Luke, who allowed her to avail herself of his modest supply of grass. She told him she was twenty-two. They drove together back to the rural hamlet where Paula was staying and made love lethargically before falling asleep at ten-thirty. The next morning, her second-to-last one there, he'd slinked off into the dampness, leaving behind a globule of mucus on the lip of her sink.
When Paula returned to New York, she realized she could no longer afford to live there. More secretarial work was an option, to be sure, but Paula balked at it. The limpid strain of continuity would undo her; sitting in a padded desk chair, answering the telephone, she saw the delta of her youth draining untroubled to a salt-stilled sea, boundless and imperturbable. She saw death. When her mother wired money, enough to tender a hamburger a day for a fortnight or so, Paula considered returning to Tuscaloosa. But there, she'd be just a haggard apparition, the beauty queen made hard and spinsterish on the craggy back of the north. Her high school friends, her sorority sisters, were all most certainly married with children. And Paula still smoked; she kept a toothbrush in her purse in case she woke up somewhere strange. To everyone back home, she might as well have been a Martian or Japanese. So she bid her time and drained her savings. Her mother phoned with news of odd relatives; who had gotten sick or pregnant. Paula stared out the window during these conversations, as if participating in them required some token of departure. In the soot-gritted glass one evening, she noticed with cold horror the lines that had begun to branch from her eyes. They didn't form in the usual place, hugging the lower lid from the cheekbones, but rather eked out from the eyes' corners laterally, digging slow trenches away from the center of her. She couldn't blame them.
In May, when Paula had given herself two more weeks to get a job or get out, she went to a dinner party where some acquaintances of the host professed their need for a full-time nanny. He, a member of the junior faculty at Columbia, and she, a nurse at Sinai, were having difficulty finding someone reliable to take care of their two-year-old, Noel. The combination of three martinis and a buried desire to stay in New York forever prompted Paula to offer her services. The new life began less than a week later.
At first, things were standoffish between Paula and the boy; she expected him, for the most part, to exist competently enough without her intervention. Noel's parents had left a list of "child-care chores" on the counter in the kitchen, along with twin litanies of their son's preferences and dislikes. Noel called her "Pawa" and insisted that she observe him watching the television program she'd turned on in the hope of diverting him. When he turned around to make sure she was looking, Paula would cross her eyes or flare her nostrils at the boy, and he would shriek with laughter. As the months progressed, Paula found this an ever easier thing to do, to fill her days watching Noel with a type of plucky levity that seemed to cheer them both. Initially, this exuberance felt like it was meant to fill a great hole, that Paula was a silently suffering hero entertaining this child in order to forget a most momentous pain. But then the pain did mute, and Paula realized she was good at what she'd been doing. She realized simultaneously that she'd been falling out of step with the company she kept in the city, had been falling asleep after a single drink on friends' couches, had less to say at parties, eventually stopped going to the parties at all.
Richard, a copyeditor, lived in the apartment across the hall from Noel's parents. Paula first met him on a scorching afternoon when she and Noel had intentions of a picnic in the park. Noel lost a sandal coming down the stairs, and as Paula turned back up to get it, Richard called down from the hallway. Paula remembered—she would probably always be stuck remembering—what he wore that afternoon: a pair of jean shorts with a tight Yankees tee shirt, a bulky digital watch, socks.
He'd call her Pawa for the next decade, as she expanded her nannying services to cater to children besides Noel, brought Richard down to Tuscaloosa to meet her mother, reluctantly got her teaching certificate, married him, and agreed to raise their daughter in Fort Lauderdale. He only stopped (at Paula's request) after he left her.
"And things with Richard—you're obviously talking to him these days," said Dr. Benjamin.
"'Talking' is too continuous. We talk." She frowned. "You know. For a while, it was too hard. I mean, it was this weird thing—I wanted to be talking to him all the time, but whenever I did—"
"It just reminded you."
"So he's the one who calls?"
"Yeah. Every few weeks, maybe. Mostly he asks after Jessie."
"And what do you tell him?"
"That she's good. I mean, what is there to say?"
Dr. Benjamin clicked his pen a few times and began on a long disquisition about the exigencies of adolescenthood, most of which Paula only half-listened to because she believed him to be not entirely over that phase of life, himself. Instead, she worked out strategies to get Jessie to the mall later. There were the usual tricks—threats, bribery, the promise of lunch at Taco Viva. But the early summer languor had had a profound effect on her daughter, and Paula knew that today's effort might take a bit extra. Maybe a trip to the feminist bookstore.
She came to just as Dr. Benjamin recommended that Paula set up more social dates for Jessie with other girls in the neighborhood. He laughed at some sort of joke he'd made with himself, then prescribed her an herbal remedy for insomnia. At the end of the session, like always, he got up and shook her hand.
When Paula got home, Jessie was awake. The last few weeks of the school year had seen her on a troublesome schedule, a routine kept with near-military rigor that Jessie had established in preparation for final exams. Even on weekends, she woke up at seven and made a small bowl of oatmeal, then ran the 1.5-mile loop around their condo complex. By nine, she was walled off behind a stack of textbooks, not to emerge until dinnertime. But this morning, when Paula found her, Jessie was in the position of repose she'd struck every morning of the ten since school ended, lanked across the couch and watching Sábado Gigante. She moaned at Paula by way of greeting.
"Very nice." Paula ripped open a packet of Splenda and dumped its contents into her coffee. She stirred. "Would it be alright with you if we left in forty-five minutes?"
"Left for where?"
"Don't be this way."
"Don Francisco's on marathon. Let's go tomorrow."
"And what exactly would you do with the rest of today?"
Jessie squinted at Paula. "As little as humanly possible." She took a bite of her toast and slouched further on the sofa.
It was this kind of dramatic swing, the ability so quickly to blunt razor focus into a leaden armor of ennui that worried Paula about her daughter. All the people she'd known who were able to control their temperament had suffered some manner of breakdown in their adulthoods, a moment when their moods finally ducked away from them. She rumpled the girl's hair and walked out to the patio for the day's first illegal cigarette.
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.
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