TELL ME WHEN IT HURTS
My father is in the water again.
He is treading in front of me, a snorkel in his mouth, his mask filled with fog. He watches me for a moment and then dives down, disappearing at the edge of the drop off.
My father is building an artificial reef. It is murky and enormous.
He’s been building it all summer. He uses bricks, tree parts, ancient looking anchors and occasional shopping carts. Bass, perch and trout come to feed on the algae and crayfish that make their home there. In the mornings and evenings he sits in his aluminum fishing boat, wearing his excessively pocketed vest, and catch- es them one after another like a hungry bear.
It is August, and I am lying on a faded towel on the old pontoon raft.
In August, the sun warms Lake Michigan. Now that the water isn’t freezing, my father spends less and less time on dry land and more and more time under- water, perfecting his creation and communing with the creatures he kills.
He surfaces near the edge of the raft, blowing air out from his snorkel in an agitated burst. “Sam,” he says. He waves a crayfish near my fingers.
It claws at me, quivering and sad.
I left my husband Charlie, but I haven’t told him yet. I told him I was taking a vacation.
The winter before we saved our money and bought a house in a neighborhood that people we knew called dicey. But we weren’t like those people. We liked being far away from those people. We liked the dirt, the plastic bag tumbleweeds, the condoms and glass that littered the street. We liked the hookers that covered their faces in glitter and called us baby.
We liked that somebody called us baby.
The house was squat and small. It had trouble standing straight. It was our fixer upper and we couldn’t fix it up. After taxes, insurance, electric and heating bills and after the coffee, bread and toilet paper we were left with nothing.
I knew it was a nice thing to own a house. But in the afternoons and evenings when I came home and stood in front of it and looked at the peeling paint, the barren back yard and the roof on the garage that sunk towards the back, I couldn’t help it. I didn’t feel nice.
“This is romance,” Charlie said when we sat and ate the spaghetti and salad I made under the buzz of the kitchen light, “being broke, young, and together.”
I wasn’t sure. I thought the seventies sounded like romance. According to our family stories, in the seventies everyone was doing poverty.
My parents had only beanbags for furniture in the seventies, while Charlie’s started out the decade eating dinner on a large tree stump in the middle of their living room. My Aunt Lori, now a tenured professor, got scurvy in 1977. She hadn’t eaten a fruit or vegetable for two years.
These were the stories that fueled Charlie’s dreams when we couldn’t afford heat.
“Brrr,” said Charlie, his spaghetti cold. He never ate it fast enough.
My father knows I left Charlie. I told him when I came home.
I float in the lake. After awhile, the water feels as warm as a bath if you let it.
My father is out of the water now, swinging in his imported hammock near the house. He waves something small and dark. “Samantha,” my father’s voice echoes over the water.
I swim in, and while I do, he stands at the edge of the dock with the phone in his hand, tapping his deck shoe impatiently on the wood. He does not like what I have done. He does not like me here. Or rather, he likes me here, but he doesn’t like me here without Charlie.
In my father’s opinion, Charlie is the glue that holds me together.
I take the phone and hold it at a small distance from my wet ear. I watch the sun fall onto the trees out over the water.
Charlie sounds tinny and far away. “Happy birthday, Sam,” he says.
“It’s not my birthday,” I reply. It isn’t. My birthday is tomorrow.
The lake water dries on my skin as I stand in the breeze.
“I know,” Charlie says, “but I might not be able to call you tomorrow.”
Charlie tells me he’s assigned to photograph a basset hound parade tomorrow. He loves Detroit, and what he wouldn’t give to document mayoral extravagance or the death of manufacturing or a hockey fight. But he’s still new, so he gets the basset hounds.
“So, thirty-two tomorrow,” he says.
“Thirty-two,” I say.
“Swimming much?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. Charlie never swims up north. He won’t go into Lake Michigan any deeper than his knees. He can’t handle the cold. His parents took him to Hawaii too many times when he was a teenager. The first few summers we dated, my family threw him in the lake, and Charlie would scream and smile. But after a while, we let him be himself. We hoped he’d come around.
The first summer we didn’t throw him in, that’s when Charlie started to get too serious.
“Is it cold?” he asks.
“Of course not,” I say, shivering.
I tried with the house. I tried everything.
My brother was twenty-five and well-connected. He visited from his far off, drug-laden college town with a backpack full of stimulants. I myself was thirty- one, and proof lay everywhere of my being hopelessly disconnected. From my t-shirts, which grew less ironic with each passing year, to my soft, white cotton briefs that vaguely resembled diapers, it was official. I had ceased to care.
Charlie went to work, Charlie went to bed. I worked on my resume, my cover letter, my triceps. I swallowed pills and drank things and taped the walls and covered the floors. I painted the living room, the kitchen, and our bedroom. I painted them bright, obscene tropical colors.
It was the dead of winter. The trees looked like something had shocked the shit out of them. We wore sweaters and scarves inside and kept the drapes pulled tight. Even when we splurged and opened the drapes in the afternoon, the only light that poured through the window was gray, making everything we owned look broken and useless.
The yellow, orange, and green on our walls was supposed to transport us somewhere warm, make us believe it could be May. Instead, when Charlie awoke in the dark and turned on the light in the kitchen, the orange glowed all around him in a pulsing orb.
He came back to bed, complaining of an acid flashback.
“You’ve never done acid,” I whispered into the dark.
“Exactly,” he replied, disappearing into our blanket’s gauzy, cotton cocoon.
My father killed seven fish today.
He stands in the kitchen, the wood walls making everything seem darker than it should be. He is slicing scales and heads off.
“Look,” he says, his hands bloody. He found eggs in the belly of one of the fish.
My mother chops carrots and iceberg lettuce. Once, a few years ago, I tried to tell her there were no nutrients in iceberg lettuce. But she doesn’t care. She likes the way it tastes.
I am leaving wet footprints on the dried grass carpet. I set the phone down. I am without my husband, in my bathing suit, reaching for a piece of carrot that my mother has just chopped.
My mother watches me with newfound authority.
I look at the counter. There is a bowl of flour and pepper and salt for my father to roll the fish in. He goes to the stove and turns on the oil. He’ll wait for it to hiss before he begins frying.
I myself enjoyed the colors in our house.
But I knew color was not the answer.
The answer to our home’s revival lay in the yard. We needed to plant seeds. We needed to make something grow. But it was winter, that never-ending brutal season, so there was nothing we could do but shiver and talk about it.
Charlie’s mother liked to be involved. She spent a great deal of money on glossy, hardcover lawn and garden books and brought them over. She crossed her legs and laid them out on our kitchen table, her extravagant jacket still on her shoulders. She and her husband had developed a patent for a drug that calmed nervous conditions. They’d made a bundle and they took vacations to places inac- cessible by commercial airliners. They ate tapas and sushi, and drank champagne and had closets stacked full of obscure diet sodas.
We always turned the heat up for her, but it was never warm enough.
Charlie’s mother shivered, rubbing her mauve lips together. In the new mil- lennium, her old tree stump table was nothing but a nostalgic chuckle.
The books were glossy toxins. She turned the pages, ripping papers off her little yellow post-it pad. “With a little pluck and zeal,” she read from the heavi- est, glossiest tome, “you too can create your own Zen Retreat, English Garden or Urban Escape.” She looked out the window at the barren wasteland we called our yard. She asked me what I envisioned.
In her eyes I could see a Balinese pool house, replete with billowing sheets and silk pillows. I thought of my backyard and its giant maple and oak trees. I thought of the squirrels the size of house cats that made their homes there.
I set realistic goals. I wanted to improve the yard without help, just Charlie and me. “I would like to plant some hostas,” I said, “and build a picnic table.” I saw Charlie digging, me planting. Both of us sawing and hammering, our constructions imperfect but stable.
Besides, I knew two things about gardening.
One, hostas required no sun.
Two, Michigan squirrels the size of house cats would soon destroy one’s care- fully crafted Zen Retreat, making all involved look a little foolish.
We eat dinner. Perch, gold and crisp. A crunchy, nutritionless salad. Dollops of tartar sauce like little piles of shaving cream everywhere. Lemon wedges, whiskey, and pie.
The wind picks up and waves crash out front, making things feel negative and aligned.
Bugs and moths dart at the ancient lamp that hangs over the table. They fly to the light, hit it, and fall near the salad, dazed and flapping.
My parents secretly wish for things they will not say. They don’t have to say. It is all in the way they don’t look at me. They don’t look at me like I am missing something.
Like I am missing someone.
Charlie. My parent’s were thrilled when I married Charlie four years ago. They were grateful I’d hitched a ride with success. Now they look at me askew. They hope I’m not running myself into a ditch.
I look at them and then I look at my crunchy salad.
They talk of my father’s reef. Fishermen from all over the bay are coming now to fish it. Everyone is catching more fish than they could dream of, and they all have my father to thank. Except they don’t thank him.
So some evenings, my father swims underwater, his fins pushing him fast and stealth, until he reaches their boats. He can smell their cigar smoke, even under- water. He can tell they are fat men from the way their boats sink.
Sometimes he finds their hooks and lines, and pulls their worms, their expen- sive metallic lures and sinkers off. Sometimes he hooks something onto their lines, something rusty or useless.
When he surfaces, sucking air into his snorkel, they say, “Hey, are you the guy that takes care of this thing?”
When he nods, breath thick like Darth Vader, they smile.
“Brilliant,” they say.
But they don’t thank him.
Spring came downstate.
At night, the freeway could be heard from the cold of our bedroom, a distant murmur of cars and trucks rushing in far off directions.
Charlie fell asleep before I did. As he slept, I tried to imagine how I might improve things for us, and I tried not to think dark, broken thoughts.
I tried. Hope always led me back to the yard.
In April I planted a hydrangea shrub and watered it, clipped it, and stroked it.
By May it was dead.
I tried to make friends with our neighbors. Once I had a job with children, and it had been mildly satisfying. I felt hopeful about making friends with a chub- by little black girl from our block whose hair was never brushed. I didn’t like to brush my hair either.
One day she was riding her pink bike down the street, unwrapping purple pieces of candy and throwing the shiny wrappers in a trail behind her.
I acted like I didn’t notice that she was littering.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” she said, slowing to a stop in front of me. She threw a candy wrapper at my feet.
“You know what?” she asked, her mouth vivid purple.
“What?” I asked. I pretended her mouth didn’t look bright and injured.
She stared at my chest through my flesh colored t-shirt. “My mother says everyone can see your bra today. It’s blue.”
I bent over and picked up her candy wrapper.
“Thanks,” I said as she sped off, a streak of pink against the gray sky.
Sometimes my father and I swim in the dark.
Tonight we wander down to the shore and into the waves. The sky is a black swirl. We swim far out, over the reef, and let the waves carry us. The atmosphere turns and the wind howls a little. We freeze, acute and alive.
“You know, it could be worse,” my father says.
The water carries me closer to him. “It could be,” I agree.
My father says, “You might think he deceived you. But he thought he surprised you. He surprised you because he loves you.”
I say nothing and we float above and under the waves.
I want to tell him how I went to the lumber yard. How I came home with the sturdiest, most sensible wood. I want to tell him about the picnic table plans I downloaded off the internet. I borrowed all the tools, read all the manuals. I had everything ready and simple. There was no way we could screw it up. We could have done it finally, we could have made something.
Charlie and I could have built something together.
But the morning I had everything ready, Charlie came home from the paper distracted. He had to go to Windsor for an assignment. I pointed at the wood, and ran my hand over it. “No splinters,” I admired. I showed him the plans. I bran- dished the tools. I spoke, showing off my new knowledge.
I curled my bicep, leaned in and growled, “We can do it.”
Charlie furrowed his brow and paced in front of the wood, screwing up the grass a little with each step. He glared and stomped the dirt. “I told you, Sam,” he said. He wasn’t smiling. “I don’t have time. I have deadlines.”
I was quiet. Charlie put his hands on his hips. An especially large squirrel scampered down one of the oaks and inspected a long piece of wood. The squirrel sniffed the wood and took its sharp paws and dug in, scratching it deep and hard.
He had used the same excuse for other things. Charlie was bred for success. He needed time to work and strive, and when he was successful, he’d have time to live life with me, to hang around.
“He loves you,” my father repeats. His digital watch glows and the wind gusts over our exposed skin. “Just not in the way you expected.” Downstate the cold was gone. The sun came out.
It was May. It was easier to have hope for our little house then.
The house was warmer and it looked less distressed. It looked less like a fort we had hastily constructed and more like something stable and sunk into the ground with concrete.
Charlie’s mother came back with more books, and now with magazines, too. She wanted to purchase subscriptions. She handed me sweepstakes forms and turned on the television. There was an overly animated woman on with a hand- some crew, turning someone’s yard into a pet lounge and café.
Charlie’s mother pointed out that the homeowner had a lot of pets.
She left magazines on our coffee table, in our cars, and near our toilet.
I tried not to look at them. They made me desire things I didn’t admire. They made me wish I was a gay art collector or a society lady. When I looked at them, I wanted chintz and a sofa that matched my painting and a custom play room for my golden-furred dog.
I tried to recycle them. I took them to the city recycling center, tied in three enormous bundles with twine. I lugged them from my car into the center, sweat- ing and straining. I dragged them in front of an overweight lady wearing a blue jumpsuit, her hair twisted in a sensible bun.
“What do we have here?” she asked, untying the twine and thumbing through the shiny pages.
“Don’t do it,” I warned. “Look and see the beauty around you.”
She looked around at the vast, concrete and metal warehouse, at the forklift screeching behind us. Everything smelled like beer.
“You have any more of these?” she wanted to know.
Another day, I drove to the nursery. I bought twelve hostas and loaded them into my car.
“You have dirt on your butt,” declared my chubby, mocha skinned neighbor as I leaned in to dig the plants out the trunk.
Her hair was half braided, half wild. “You gardening?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. No one had taught me how to garden. I planted and tended the hydrangea and it died. But I had been going to the library. I’d been checking out gardening manuals.
These hostas would live.
I asked my neighbor to help. She dug holes around the edge of the backyard. She threw in time-release fertilizer. We were careful to separate the roots. I mixed in mushroom compost. I buried the plants and tenderly patted the soil. I filled up the watering can and watched her drench each plant, sinking it into the ground with finality.
They would thrive here in our yard. They would grow.
While she dug, she told me that the day before, people were in our backyard measuring. One man had been slick and with a clipboard, another man fat and with a video camera.
They were with Charlie.
“Really?” I was intrigued. I was upset. Was his mother paying a landscaper? Had she called someone? “What did their truck say?” I asked.
“Got you,” she said, smiling. “When is Charlie ever around here, anyway?”
My neighbor had a point.
She had helped me out of self-interest. She was disappointed when she dug in the soil and only found a hypodermic needle and a small teacup.
She had thought maybe we’d find money or naked pictures. She stared at me and waited.
“Thanks for helping,” I said.
I gave her a popsicle before she left. She had dirt on her butt.
My father and I come inside from the water. We can’t feel our fingers or our toes.
My father turns on the gas fire.
Like many things in this world, it used to be real, and it isn’t anymore.
My mother is sitting on the recliner, covered in blankets. Driftwood hangs on the walls behind her. On the coffee table next to her is my father’s prized posses- sion, his fish book. Thirty-five years. Photos of his conquests, his favorite meals.
My mother is watching the television. The movie is playing again. The one Charlie’s father made at the party, the party where Charlie surprised me with a brand new outdoor living space. It’s all recorded, so for the rest of my life, I can relive our yard being ruined in repeats.
I watch the screen.
My husband stands, complicit with the landscape designer, smiling.
I’m there, red and shell-shocked, not looking grateful enough.
My mother turns to me, sitting in my towel near the pretend fire. “Many peo- ple would be touched by what he did for you,” she says.
Then, “It’s not that bad.”
Then, “I think you looked pretty.”
And finally, “I agree about the yard. The yard looked a little like a disco.”
My father concurs, “How’re you and Charlie supposed to relax in that yard?”
My mother can’t believe they pulled out my hostas.
She presses the remote and the movie goes dark. A commercial lights up the screen. We stare as dancing cartoon bears wipe their bottoms with satin soft tis- sue. They are conservationists. They sing, reminding us to use fewer squares.
I think of my yard, glowing like a garish Christmas tree.
Like many things in this world, my yard used to be real, and it isn’t anymore. Charlie’s parents patented a drug, and they have money and connections. All kinds of connections.
They often looked around our house and hinted at how they could help us. We never wanted to take anything from them. Charlie was usually good about that. He said thanks, but no, we’ve got everything under control.
But that spring, things were clearly not under control.
So once he said okay. Once, towards the end of May, when I was off at the recycling center or the nursery or an interview. Or eating a coney dog in secret, which I did on the worst days.
Once, when his mother was flipping through her magazines. She was looking at Cindy Crawford’s yard. “My,” she said, “you could do the same. You could build a terra cotta fire pit and design an outdoor sitting room modeled after the open aired lobby of a Thai beach resort.”
Charlie pointed out that Cindy Crawford lived in southern California.
Still, his mother had ideas. She had phone numbers. She knew people. A friend’s daughter had some sort of chic landscape design business. It would be a deal, it would be perky and painless, and leave us with something beautiful. Charlie’s mother would pay for it, of course.
Charlie said okay. What was the big deal about working on the yard together, anyway? It would be a present for me. A nice, easy surprise. Maybe it would cheer me up. I certainly needed cheering up.
Charlie found my neighbor out front killing ants, my only friend around. He told her not to say what she saw. He promised she would be given a limitless bounty of candy if I never knew.
Two and a half weeks later, Charlie’s mother drove me to a spa frequented by financier’s wives and car company executives.
“Happy Flag Day,” she said. “Prepare to be rejuvenated.”
We took off our clothes and put on soft robes and drank tea. Ladies came and silently pointed. We were rubbed and our skin was poked and prodded. We were covered in cucumbers and fragrant fruits and flowers, and rolled in mud. Our backs were punched and we were oiled and our feet were scraped, the dead skin falling away into little piles beneath us.
We emerged eight hours later, blinking onto the dark street. Charlie’s mother looked stretched and shined. I was blotchy, puffed. Reactionary.
When I arrived home, lights shot up from behind our house, making it look like it had just landed from a hostile planet. My little chubby neighbor ran out to meet me. She was wearing a candy ring and she smelled like sugar. Her hair was braided tight and clean. She wanted to show me something.
We walked hand in hand to the back yard. Charlie was there, wearing a tight grin. A large breasted woman with flaxen hair and three hundred dollar jeans held him by the shoulders. Her four inch heels sunk into the ground. The yard glowed, twinkling lights and sod and Swedish lawn furnishings and gorgeous overgrown plants that would soon die in my care were everywhere. Our yard was not our yard. Our yard was overstimulated: Balinese, silken and Crawfordesque.
There were cameras. There was a deck. Everyone was shiny and standing on it.
“Surprise!” they shouted. There were dozens of them. Some strangers, some strange friends. Charlie was in the middle, trying. He was trying not to ask me if I was okay.
My neighbor tugged. Like a friend she looked at me, sad and blotchy, and told me the truth. “Smile,” she said, “and then people won’t see there’s something wrong with your face.”
I take a shower to warm up. I go to bed.
Tomorrow I will be thirty-two.
At the lake I sleep on the same bed I did as a child. It is small and sinks a little. My room is now a guest room, with folksy lake paintings on the walls. It is washed of my presence.
But my bed is still my bed.
Here, with the wind in the trees and water hitting the shore, I fall asleep instantly.
I awake in the middle of the night. Charlie is lying on the identical bed next to me. He wears his green cargo pants, stuffed with various work gear, and sun- glasses. His giant suitcase sits next to the bed, as big as a dresser.
I don’t know if I am awake or dreaming. I throw my pillow at Charlie.
“I know you aren’t on vacation, Sam,” he says, his voice muffled by the pillow.
He is no dream. I can smell his mosquito repellent. Charlie always puts on too much of everything. “I am on vacation,” I lie.
“What do I need to do to make you come home?” he asks.
I pretend I am dreaming. I am dreaming that we are in a soap opera where people shake each other by the shoulders and tell each other matters of grave importance.
I want tell him we could do things if we tried. If we took the time and worked, the amazing things we might make. I want to say life isn’t only about his career. I want to say life isn’t always glossy and it doesn’t wear three hundred dol- lar jeans. Life is sometimes about getting cold, and building ugly things, growing mediocre plants, and getting dirt on your butt.
I want to tell him that we can make something, he and I. Something better. I want to. But I’ve already told him all of this, and he looked at me like we were in a soap opera.
I fall asleep, with Charlie there, sleeping next to me like some strange sibling.
And we are not in a soap opera.
A few days after the landscape designers transformed our lives and destroyed our yard, it was time for my yearly exam. I had to go to the doctor.
It was the worst kind of yearly exam. The worst kind of doctor.
I went to the gynecologist.
I was never satisfied with any gynecologist. I never wanted anyone to put me in stirrups, to put a cold clamp in between my legs, searching inside me with a jellied rubber glove. No matter how cheerful, or pretty or witty or wise, the gynecologist was a person I did not enjoy.
This one was a new one. This one was no better. She had photographs of plump little babies on her wall and her office was littered with the same kinds of magazines I had taken to the recycling center. She asked me about Charlie. She asked me about my job search.
She roamed around inside of me and rubbed my breasts and said things like, “Oh?” and “Hmm. That’s nice.”
Before the exam, when I was sitting bare bottomed in a paper gown, staring at the growing veins in my legs, she looked at her chart and began her litany of provocations.
“Any allergies to medications?” She asked.
“No,” I said.
“Smoke, drink or drugs?”
“No, yes and sometimes,” I told her.
“Any pregnancies?” She asked.
“Two,” I said.
“No,” I said.
“Miscarriages or abortions?”
I answered her yes and no, or no and yes, in what order, it did not matter. Did I need to explain? That one happened last year, the other the year before. Both since Charlie and I were married. I was quiet. I did not need to explain anything to her. None of that is what any of this is about.
“It’s okay,” she said after I was quiet.
“I know,” I said, stinging.
The things these anonymous doctors said to us in this modern world.
The things we had to say to them.
She told me to lie down, and move all the way to the front of the table. I did, and my feet went up and the clamp went in. She cranked it.
“Tell me when it hurts,” she said.
Everything inside and out stung and burned and hurt.
But I didn’t tell her.
When I wake Charlie isn’t in the bed next to me. But his giant suitcase looms, unzipped.
I go to the kitchen and pour coffee. It is late, and outside the sun burns high in the easter blue sky. The lake is calm, a small, fresh ocean surrounded by pines and birch.
I walk out onto the dock in my pajamas, sand collecting in between my toes. I look out over the drop off, near the reef.
There are two sets of snorkels there, moving about like strange shark fins.
My father is showing Charlie his reef.
Down in my father’s world, the fish are darting and fleeing, the minnows hid- ing in crevices. He is a giant, in control of his realm. He is pointing out the shop- ping carts, the piles of bricks and anchors. He is diving down and lifting slippery rocks.
He is showing Charlie a small universe he built with his hands.
I stand and watch. I do not care to join them. This time I want to stay warm.
After a few minutes, they come up and notice me. Charlie swims to the dock. “Happy birthday, Sam,” he says, his head bobbing in the water, a handsome and slick buoy.
“That reef is incredible,” Charlie goes on, grabbing the wood near my feet. “Your father must have worked forever.” His smile is boyish, ridiculous and infec- tious.
It is impossible not to love Charlie when he smiles.
He is genuinely amazed. I stand silent, letting him stay that way for a minute.
Then I ask, “Is it cold?”
He shivers and nods his wet, smiling head. “Yeah, so cold,” he says, “it almost hurts.”
“Yeah, almost,” I say.
It’s too late to change anything.
But at least he had said it. At least he understood.