THESE ARE THE THINGS Alexa does not keep:
A toothbrush, the bristles worn down like the receding hairline of a middle-age man. A cashmere sweater, soft as a caress, the threads starting to unravel at the sleeves. A notebook of cramped writing, progressively smaller and smaller, like the fading of the setting sun.She feeds these things, one by one, into the fireplace, watching distantly as the flames embraced the memories.
But it is not enough.
The room, the bed sheets and the bulky leather couch—they all still smell of him.
“Maybe your mother’s right,” Michael said, dipping his feet at the shallow end of the pool. It was a community pool, one that had never seen fit to hire a lifeguard or replace the plastic tables with broken umbrellas or clean the bathrooms that smelled like cat litter.
“Daaaad.”He sighed. “All right. But if we hear any thunder—“
But his son Eric was already wading; the water was up to his stomach. He rode on his orange noodle like a horse; he spun and twisted like an acrobat.
“Daddy, aren’t you coming?”
Aren’t you coming? His wife had asked the night before they were to be married. The pool – this very same one – had its gates shut at midnight, and he’d stared. But she’d pulled him along, and together, laughing, they’d scaled the fence. “But you don’t have a suit,” he’d protested, and she’d cupped his chin and kissed him, still laughing. It doesn’t matter, she’d replied, and she stripped down to her pink bra and panties and leapt in.
The chlorinated water made Michael’s nose burn. He reached into his pocket to dial the only contact he had left. “In a minute,” he promised. “I’m going to call Mommy.”
He didn’t notice, as he dialed once, twice, three times, and was greeted with the busy signal, that Eric’s splashing had stopped.
On the fourth try, he stayed on the line.
If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again.
If only it were that simple.
Despite the warmth of the day, Alexa pulled her cashmere sweater over her head. She’d gotten it as a present from her son last Mother’s Day, though of course Michael had really picked it out. It was a size too large and draped over her shoulders like moss but she wore it as much as she could find excuse to.
The kitchen had already been cleaned four times; she’d scrubbed the counters until her knuckles became raw and the skin broke. She’d swept the floors, searched the fridge with the intensity of a ravaging raccoon, discarding an expired milk cartoon, rotting mushrooms, half of a Trix yogurt Eric had never finished.The smell of cleaning fluid bled into the buttery caramel of the three-layered cake she’d baked for Eric. It had been beautiful, the icing hanging off the edges of the cake pan like delicate icicles, the color of warm sand. But now it was in the trash, smashed violently against the sides of the garbage bag, the layers settling among the milk carton and mushrooms and unfinished yogurt.
It was the cake that had started the argument. This argument, at least. She couldn’t ever remember what had started the others. Michael had climbed down the steps half past noon, still dressed in his flannel pajamas, wearing the same dark circles under his eyes he’d worn the past two years, no matter how much he slept.
“Afternoon is more like it.” Alexa pulled out the container of flour and sugar from the pantry.
“Are you making something?”
“It’s Eric’s birthday,” she said, deliberately clanging the mixer against the bowl. She could understand that he was tired, that he worked long and odd hours. She could accept, even, that they no longer curled together in front of the fireplace on Friday nights while watching grainy westerns or forgettable chick flicks. She could accept that, more often than not, he merely picked at the dinners she cooked.
But when it came to Eric, she had no patience. What father forgot his son’s birthday?
He peered at the bowl, rubbing his eyes. “A cake?”
“Do you need any help?”
She couldn’t help it; she stared. She could not remember the last time Michael had expressed interest in doing anything, to be honest. She shifted the flour, added the sugar. “I think I can bake a cake.”
“Please.” He laced his fingers with hers. “I’d like to help.”
He smelled like he had, before. Smoke, that never quite left his skin; perspiration and the two- dollar Suave shampoo he’d used before they’d met. Alexa never realized how much she missed it until it was there again.
“Well, I could use some help mixing the wet ingredients.”
He smiled faintly. “You asked the right man.” He frowned as she pulled out the brown sugar. “What’s that for?”
“I’m making a caramel cake.”
“I thought you said it was for Eric’s birthday.”
She took the whisk from him and started to beat the eggs. “It is.”
“I’m not sure he likes caramel.”
“I think I know my son.”
“I didn’t…I just thought maybe chocolate would be—“
“He needs to expand his tastes. Whenever we go out, he orders fries and chicken tenders. He’d like things if he actually tried them.”
“But on his birthday—“
Alexa poured the dry ingredients in. She reached for the mixer and thought better of it. She wanted to mix it by hand. “Good grief. At least he’s getting a cake. If it were up to you, he wouldn’t have a birthday at all.”
“Would he?” She dropped the batter into the three prepared rounds. “Tell me, Michael, when was the last time you remembered without me reminding you? You forgot last year too. And this year for Mother’s Day, the only reason you knew was because Eric made a card in school. And you went and bought me a goddamn foot massager from Walgreens.”
When she finally looked up, her eyes met his, pale blue and green speckled like a robin’s egg. He was crying.
“You know it’s been hard.”
But it had been hard for her, too. She slammed the oven door shut. “Sometimes if we want things to be different we have to make them that way.” She cleaned her hands on her apron. “Just because you aren’t willing, doesn’t mean we aren’t. “
“You can’t speak for Eric.”
She thought of the chocolate sheet cakes with green and blue icing she’d bought in the past. Then, she’d believed that you could let someone choose, that there was an intuitive knowing what you’d like, what was best.
But some things you had to direct. Some things you had to protect.
“Go to hell,” she said softly.
She didn’t notice that he had stopped crying, and started to agree with her. And when he took Eric to the pool, even though it was storming, she did not say a word.
The first night of their honeymoon, Alexa had asked Michael what he wanted most in the world.
“Anything?” he’d teased, navigating the landscape of her neck with his lips.“I mean anything.” It was crisp, even for North Dakota, the autumn leaves brown and pressed on the ground like soggy cornflakes at the bottom of a cereal bowl. Most newlyweds traveled to the Bahamas, with bone white sand and water so clear you could see your reflection, or exotic locations with menu items that tickled the tongue: masala, moussaka, manicotti. But they hadn’t been able to afford anything like that, and even under the damp gray skies, Michael could not think of anything more romantic than the open wilderness. To be surrounded by the embrace of hickory oak and wake to the symphony of birds and insects.
Today, though, he wondered if it had been right for her. She’d insisted she hadn’t minded, but he always wondered, wondered how it was always somehow Alexa taking care of him instead of the other way around.
The wind tousled her hat down the wooded path, and he ran ahead to fetch it; like always, though, she rescued it first. They fell together, laughing, in a pile of leaves, settling in the mossy earth and the heavy cologne of hickory nuts.
“So what would it be?”
“You,” he answered without hesitation.
“I mean really.”
He’d looked at her, puzzled, saying he couldn’t imagine anything else. And he couldn’t. It had been her, after all, who’d taught him how to live after the dark spell of his father’s death; how to watch the egg yolk drip of a setting sun; how to catch a snowflake before it melted. She was the one thing that made him forget, and he was the one thing that made her remember.
But that night she’d cradled her abdomen and smiled and told him he was going to be a father. And that was the night she started to forget.
“Eric, I think it’s time to go home. Eric?”
Michael glanced over at the pool, which was utterly still: no ripples, no splashes, none of the usual laughter that ensued when his son was swimming.“Eric!” Michael froze, like he always did when he had to take action. He felt that familiar cold creep into him, the paralyzing tongue of a serpent, slowly spreading its poison.
But then she was there; of course she was. Alexa came running in black heels, diving into the pool as her dress formed a parachute behind her. And in the seconds it took for Michael to realize what was happening, she’d brought their son to surface.
He was an angelfish, his forehead angular and pale blue, his eyes tiny lifeless slits. “Michael you bastard!” She pressed her hands against their son’s chest, pressing life into him like a baker forms dough. And Michael only watched, hopeless once again to save those he loved.
Alexa had always gravitated to things and people that needed saving. It was why she’d insisted on going to the animal shelter and adopted a half-blind, flea-infested border collie instead of the champagne poodle her mother had selected at a pet store. It was why she’ d rescued a snapping turtle trapped on a freeway. And it was why, perhaps, she’d first fallen for Michael.
She’d fallen for the caramel melancholy of his eyes, the soft tilt to his voice that reminded her of fine rain. She’d led him, shown him that there was still life if you’d looked for it.They say everything changes when you become a mother, but for her it wasn’t so much changing as changing focus. If she admitted it to herself, Alexa had only so much capacity to save, to heal. And now Eric needed that more than Michael.
They stopped their evening walks, she canceled the monthly dinner they’d planned. She traded petal pink lingerie for industrial blue Walmart underclothes and floral perfume for baby powder.
And she told him how they’d raise their son; she’d pushed him away, as if depression was something that might be caught like the common flu.
She missed loving him and him loving her. But she knew, given the chance, she’d do it again in a heartbeat. She knew that sometimes you had choose who you saved.
Michael remembered the day he purchased the toothbrush. It was at Big Lot’s, on sale for a grand total of $0.99. But it wasn’t one of those cheap ones you’d might expect, but a Crest Pro Health. True, it was the greenish-gray shade that Eric had vomited when he’d eaten too much candy one Halloween, but Michael didn’t see how that mattered. It was a toothbrush, and a good one too.
At least that was how he’d seen it. But Alexa had looked at him with the same disgust she usually reserved for the things he said or bought or wore. “Can’t we afford to buy one for a dollar more?” she’d asked.Now, holding it between shaking fingers, he wished he had. He ran his teeth back and forth over the bristles, worn flat. He’d done everything in his power to wear that damn brush down, so he could get a new one. And now, finally, it no longer mattered; it was too late.
He sat down and stared into the mirror, seeing his son instead of himself. His eyes, wide with shock as he woke up connected to monitors; a wild animal caged in an exhibition. The cheeks, sunken from days of not eating, his lips still void of color.
You killed our son.
Yes, he had. Eric was alive, that was certain. Alexa had called for an ambulance, and he’d stayed the night while they monitored him. But Eric would never be the same. In the years to come, he would do everything in his power to avoid water. Even when he is thirty, with a son of his own, he will not come to the swim meets. He will never set foot in water again.
But Michael did not know this. He did not know that the reason Eric will not swim has a lot less to do with almost drowning when he was eight and a lot more to do with what came next.
All that Michael knows is that he has failed—himself, his wife, his son.
Michael lifted his father’s pistol to his head, communicating in that one sound all the words he could not say.
These are the things Alexa does keep:
A checkered invite to her son’s wedding she missed. A welcome letter to Sandy Acres, the retirement community she will live the rest of her life in after falling on an icy day and breaking her hip. Orders for Xanax, which all these years later, she still refills.
But there are other things, things she keeps with her day and night. A faded photo, the last one of the three of them, vanilla ice cream dribbling down Eric’s chin; her face tilted towards Michael’s as they share a lemon ice. The ruby necklace Michael had bought her for their fifth anniversary, which always made her think of pomegranate seeds. A half empty bottle of Michael’s cologne, the scent of the ocean after a storm.
And Michael. The smell of flannel and dirt. The leather of his hands, the dimples in his cheeks. When she is taken to the retirement home later that day, she will not miss the old house, with the heavy armchairs and battered kitchen table. She will not miss the walls, slate white, because they never got around painting them.
In the years to come, she will forget her son’s name, her grandson’s birthday. She will lose the ability to pen her name, to do the crosswords, to dress herself.
But always, she will hold onto the shirt Michael used the wear, that somehow still smells of him. And even long after she cannot recall the details, the scent will come into her, fill her. And it is there she finds peace. It is there she comes home.
ERIN JAMIESON holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University of Ohio. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in After the Pause, Into the Void, Flash Frontier,Mount Analogue, Blue River, The Airgonaut,Evansville Review, Canary, Shelia-Na-Gig, and Foliate Oak Literary, among others. She currently teaches English Composition at the University of Cincinnati-Blue Ash College, and also works as a professional freelance writer.