Read Forty Rooms Online

Authors: Olga Grushin

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Contemporary Women, #Family Life

Forty Rooms (22 page)

BOOK: Forty Rooms
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I’m thinking: Once you love someone, how do you unlove them?

I’m thinking: Kiss me.

“I’m thinking of a poem I wrote when I was twenty,” she said. “One of the ones I burned on the day we met. I translated it for you later, though it isn’t nearly as good in English.”

He waited in silence. She too was silent for a moment, unsure whether she was going to do it. Then, meeting his eyes, she began to recite, stumbling a little, the heat of her insidious intent creeping up her neck.
“In the coldness of an autumn night—
no, ‘coldness’ is not right, was it ‘darkness,’ yes, I think it was ‘darkness’—

“In the darkness of an autumn night
I imagine golden beehives of a fireplace
Where the embers’ honey slowly ripens
And a cat is snoring by the flames . . .”

The cavernous cellar caught her voice and echoed it ever so slightly, as if adding a second dimension to the sounds, amplifying and deepening the meaning.

“And I am, once more, my own grandmother,
I am knitting an eternal scarf,
And my life is pasted in an album
In a row of brown old-fashioned photos.
As I knit the scarf, for my granddaughter,
In the resonance of solemn hours—”

She broke off. She looked at the wine racks, at the tiled floor under her feet, at her hands twisting the button on her cardigan—anywhere but at him. The unfinished poem lay like a damaging secret between them, the unsaid words crowding in her throat, pushing against her lips; she felt them on her tongue, shapeless, soundless, but she could not bring herself to release them into the cool, expectant stillness of the cellar.

“I . . . I don’t remember any more,” she began to say, all at once frightened—but he was kissing her already.

She felt suspended for an instant, then leaned into the kiss, her eyes fluttering closed. Everything forgotten was back in the kiss—their youth, their love, their future. The smells of earth and
wood in the cellar became the smells of the outside world, the smells of mushrooms and flowers, the changing of seasons, the joyful, heedless tumbling of the universe through rushing, dazzling space—for when you closed your eyes tightly and fire coursed through your soul, you were free to inhabit any place you willed into miraculous being, a place with no walls, no thermostats, no neatly arranged rows of expensive wines . . .

“Come away with me,” he whispered into her neck.

“How can I?” she asked, pulling away just a little so she could see his face.

And for one slow, deep-thudding heartbeat, she believed that she had truly intended it as a question—had wanted him to tell her, had hoped he could tell her.

Releasing her, he turned away, stepped back.

“I understand,” he said.

No, no, you don’t, she nearly cried out, wild with panic, kiss me again, do you hear, I want you to kiss me again—but she stood unmoving, and so did he, his face now closed, almost cruel-looking, and it was suddenly over, the moment was over, and she knew that he had not meant it, not fully, not at all. And she knew too that in that one confused, liberating, false moment she had risked robbing of meaning the entire past decade of her life—and the near loss of her past made her weak with shame.

Did you only want to pay me back for breaking your heart all those years ago? Did you want to make me feel that my marriage, my children, my life—that all of it was worthless, that nothing real had happened to me since I had left you, that I would give it all up at the drop of a hat if only you called? Well, let me tell you,
I wouldn’t—you could never have given me a life like this, and I’m happy with what I have, with where I am, do you hear me? And the kiss—the kiss was nothing, nothing at all, just a moment of insecurity, do you hear—and I don’t care how handsome, how impossibly handsome, you look—

There were steps running above their heads now, and Squash, or was it Pepper, choked on excited barks, and the bottles jingled anxiously as someone—Gene—thumped down the stairs hollering, “Mama, Mama!”

Paul was home.

“We might as well pick out some wine for dinner,” she said, readjusting her cardigan as she moved to face the bottles. “We are having snapper Veracruz.”

“Could go either white or red,” he said. “The whites are over there, yes?”

The door to the cellar opened, and Paul strode in, wide-shouldered in his custom-made gray suit, his head almost touching the ceiling, his easy smile at the ready. She flew at him with an exaggerated, frantic kiss. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?” Paul said, laughing as he shook her off. But they already recognized each other from an anthropology class they had both attended in their sophomore year. Everyone stood smiling at everyone else with the shared consciousness of being broad-minded and civilized and mature, and achingly insincere.

“We were trying to choose a bottle for the main course,” she hastened to say into the small breach of silence. “Chardonnay, perhaps?”

“No, that’s too obvious. Why don’t we let our guest choose?”

The two men began to talk about sauces and pairings. It now transpired that Adam knew his wines every bit as well as Paul, and quite possibly better, and they soon fell into an amiable banter of old acquaintances, comparing the qualities of Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc, and Pouilly-Fuissé. He had not cared two figs about fine wines in the past, she thought—back when they had been young, and free, and so full of joy, living in that dreary basement studio, no bigger than this cellar, spending entire days in bed, listening to jazz, reading poetry to each other, drinking whatever sour piss they could come by—

“How about Amontillado?” she said, cutting in.

Paul laughed dutifully, looking a bit puzzled, but Adam only smiled a fleeting smile without taking his eyes off the racks.

“Riesling would be another possibility,” he said smoothly.

For another minute, her heart tight as a clenched fist in her chest, she listened to the two of them discussing grapes. Then, unnoticed, she slunk away, making sure to close the door behind her, mindful of forever maintaining the steady chill of fifty-six degrees.

25. Nursery

The Jungle Theme

Rich had cried so much during the night that she had moved his twin brother over to Emma’s room and had spent the hours before dawn dozing fitfully in the armchair next to Rich’s crib. Now his fever seemed to have broken, but a rash bloomed all up and down his pudgy arms. Might be roseola, she decided—she had been through enough childhood illnesses, midnight vigils, emergency room dashes, to keep a mental catalogue of various symptoms, pink eyes and earaches and inflamed throats, at a well-thumbed ready; except that this was an odd sort of rash, tiny red blotches under his skin, like pinpricks of blood. Probably nothing to worry about, just hives or a heat rash, she thought as she inspected him closer in the morning light—but worth a visit to the doctor all the same. She checked the clock above the dresser. Paul would have already left for work—vaguely she remembered his shout of “Bye, honey!” reaching her from the
edges of the house—but Mrs. Simmons was due to arrive shortly. She would have to ask her to take the boy, and Mrs. Simmons would purse her lips and act all put-upon, and she would end up offering extra for Mrs. Simmons’s trouble.

Suppressing a sigh of exasperation, she reached for a fresh diaper, and Rich gave her a toothless smile and aimed a warm yellow stream at her hands, just as Emma burst through the door, wailing over a missing button on her favorite frock, the one with pink lollipops. Suppressing another sigh, she wiped her hands dry, pacified Emma with a set of wooden blocks, and, casting a wistful glance out the window—the sun lay in bright yellow slabs on the flagstones of the winding garden paths—went to get her sewing kit. No sooner had she settled in the armchair with the dress than Rich began to cry in his crib, and George woke up and joined him a room away, and Emma began to bang her blocks on the floor, not to be ignored, and when the delivery man rang the doorbell downstairs, Squash started to bark.

“Oh, be quiet!” she shouted, and, after a calming intake of breath, shouted again, “Be quiet, Squash!”—for she did not want to be the kind of mother who shouted “Be quiet!” at crying babies and peeved little girls, as much as she felt like it at times. For in truth, her exhaustion was making her irritable, not to say angry. Mrs. Simmons came to lend a hand three days a week, and Dolores helped with the cleaning every Wednesday; but even with their capable assistance, taking care of four children, two dogs, Eugene’s fish, and a house stuffed full of things that needed constant dusting, washing, updating, and repairing took its toll. It was like a never-ending sentry duty—or, as it seemed in her
grimmer moments, a prison sentence with no chance of parole. Apart from an occasional dinner outing with Paul—and these were becoming increasingly rare, subject to Paul’s demanding work schedule and Mrs. Simmons’s migraines—she never even left the house, and she was never, ever alone.

(She calmed Rich and George, called the doctor, dressed Emma, explained matters to the newly arrived Mrs. Simmons.) She thought of the kiss in the cellar, half a year ago now. Troubled as it had made her feel at the time, inconsequential as it had proved to be since—Adam was back in Paris, and they were not in touch—she found herself returning to it again and again. While knowing that this chapter of her life was finished, she felt nonetheless sustained by the secret fantasy of another, happier woman who had been released into being by a different answer—“Yes!”—at that dazzled instant in the cellar and who had walked out of the chilly gloom into a full, three-dimensional existence of moonlit romance, sunlit adventure, daring art, and, yes, guilt and regret; for unlike her, this imaginary woman, whose parallel existence ran like an intermittent ghostly thread through her mind, was an unnatural mother who
abandoned her children. (Mrs. Simmons called from the doctor’s waiting room; they would be seen next. She finished reading a book to Emma, folded the laundered clothes, and commenced scrubbing the changing table.)

Still, her confinement was only temporary, of course. First would come the driving: it was essential to be able to leave the house. She was hoping to start her lessons in another month, a month or two, as soon as Eugene had adjusted to his new school routine. (The doctor’s office called; Dr. Peck’s rumbling baritone
came on the line, asking her if he had her authorization to perform a simple blood test, merely a precaution, he just wanted to be sure it was nothing. Of course, of course, she said, and, hanging up, changed George’s diaper and moved on to sweeping the detritus of broken toys from under the cribs.) Yes, first the driving, then a membership at the library, a reading club, perhaps, even some classes at a local college. Not right away, for she was still needed at home—but in only four years the twins would join their older siblings at school, and she would have a glorious window of freedom, from ten in the morning until two in the afternoon five days a week (minus the holidays and the summer vacation and the spring break and the winter break and the snow days and the sick days and the dental appointments and the plumbing repairs and the visits to the vet). She would still be young then, only thirty-eight, her whole life before her, or no less than three-fifths of it, or at any rate more than half. (She gave George and Emma their snacks; the dogs needed walking.) Then Eugene would leave the house altogether to go off to college, and Emma would follow three years later, and finally the twins—and thus in seventeen years, a decade and a half, really, she would be free at last to live her life to the full. Fifty-one was nothing in this day and age, at fifty-one anything was possible still. She would travel, she would meet fascinating people, and most important, she would—she would—

Mrs. Simmons entered, carrying Rich. She leapt up from the armchair in which she had just collapsed, and rushed to take him. His face was blotchy from recent tears, and a bandage with blue balloons bulged in the crook of his plump little arm; but his forehead was cool to the touch of her lips, and his eyes had lost their dull sheen of sickness.

“I’ll let the dogs back in,” Mrs. Simmons said from the doorway, “and give lunch to Emma and George. Rich will sleep now, I think. Dr. Peck asked you to call him when you have a minute.”

(Mrs. Simmons, who had left Hungary as an eight-year-old girl well over a century before—for Mrs. Simmons was much older than she looked—still kept to the old ways. At night, in the solitude of her small apartment, empty save for the tent she had set up in the middle of the floor, she read tea leaves and peered into crystal balls and chatted with the moon; she was no longer hoping to see a handsome dark stranger in her cards, but she had some modest investments on which she liked to keep her third eye. On occasion she would receive, unasked, glimpses of other futures, intimations of other lives. Poor dear, she thought as she walked to the kitchen. The things we deem important are so fleeting. I do hope she survives the birth pangs, for if she ever comes into her own, it will be something to see. Perhaps I will stay a bit longer, help her through the pain.)

She settled Rich in a nest of fresh blankets and, still unwinding the spool of a different, brighter life in her mind—her fantasy fifty-one-year-old self sipping absinthe at a sidewalk café in Prague, her pen poised in her hand, her companion, his face rather vague, playing with her foot under the table—dialed the doctor’s number. The doctor came quickly. Too quickly. There was nothing definitive yet, he hastened to reassure her, it was only a preliminary result; they would know more in an hour. As she listened, the sidewalk café dimmed and receded, became a ghost of a wisp of a thought—and the present sped toward her, until here it was, looming large and solid, threatening to crush her below its sudden weight.

BOOK: Forty Rooms
4.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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