By Chin-Sun Lee
From outside the house looked welcoming, if a bit run-down, and not quite to Claire’s taste. It was a small modernized Greek Revival with blistered white clapboard walls and gray shutters. Grass ran wild in the yard, patchy and thin in some parts and overgrown in others. Claire could barely see the stone pathway leading to the front porch until she was upon it. Parked in the driveway was a large green pickup with an exposed bed.
The buzzer was broken and she had to knock several times. When the door jerked open she cried out, “Oh!” The woman before her looked so different from what she’d imagined. She had sharp hazel eyes and thin skin with faint vertical creases above her lip; two lines bracketed her mouth and deepened when she, not smiled exactly, but smirked. Smoke from the cigarette she held at her hip drifted up into Claire’s face.
“April Ives? Claire Pedersen.” She held out her hand, turning to cough discreetly. “Thanks for letting me come by.”
“Sure,” April said, giving the hand a single shake. “Watch out, that board’s loose. Come on in.”
Claire stepped gingerly at first through the hallway and then more boldly into the living room. It was late July and humid, with only warm air circulating from a ceiling fan. There were boxes everywhere, a few still open in the center of the room. “Well, it looks more spacious than in the pictures.”
“We got rid of some furniture last week. You always buy big things like houses just from pictures?”
“No!” Claire laughed. “But my uncle told me about this place, and it was such a good—” She caught herself and said, “—opportunity. We knew we had to act quickly.”
“I thought Karl wanted the place for himself. He never mentioned you ‘til we got to signing the deed.”
“I don’t know why he didn’t. We weren’t trying to be secretive. Anyway, it just made sense, since he’s family and here. When we sell our place we’ll do the transfer.” Claire was annoyed with herself for feeling defensive. “We’re not strangers to the area though. Actually … you and I once knew each other.”
April frowned. “I don’t think so.”
“Yes, when we were kids. I spent two summers at my uncle’s farm here in Cedar Ridge. I remember you.”
April kept shaking her head and Claire insisted: “A bunch of us used to play in the creek. It was you, me, some other little kid named Eddie, I think. You had a friend—Jenny? Janine?”
“Shit,” April said finally. “Yeah, Janine and I were tight up ‘til middle school. That’s so weird. I don’t remember you at all.”
The woman standing beyond the kitchen counter was bitter, unfriendly, markedly changed.
Claire couldn’t tell if she meant it as an insult. “It was only a couple of summers. We moved to Florida when I was eleven. But my husband and I’ve lived in Hell’s Kitchen since the early nineties. Back then it was cheap, but now—well, a lot has changed in fifteen years.”
“I thought he was coming today.”
“Sebastian’s just down the road. We stopped by the cemetery and he got completely sidetracked. He’ll be here soon.”
April’s mouth made a twitchy, anxious pucker. “My kids’ll be home in a little while.”
Claire had heard that April’s kids were from different fathers. “You have kids? How old are they?” “The girls are fifteen and eleven. And my boy, he’s seven. You?”
“No. We don’t have any.” Claire turned abruptly to peer out the front windows, searching for signs of Sebastian.
“Maybe you should start looking around? You need anything, I’ll be over there.” April pointed and walked toward the open kitchen at the other end of the room.
Claire felt put off by her abrupt manner, bordering on rudeness. Of course the situation was awkward; in April’s shoes she’d have felt conflicted too. But after all, if the house had to be sold, she should be glad to have a buyer. When Karl told Claire about the house, it felt providential, evoking the last happy moments of her childhood—before divorce and shuttles between Orlando and Bridgeport, before her father’s new family, her mother’s depression, and her early, swift demise from ovarian cancer.
She remembered April as a pretty, towheaded child, bossy and quick to laugh. She’d been curious to see her again, had even thought they might reconnect. That was obviously not going to happen. The woman standing beyond the kitchen counter was bitter, unfriendly, markedly changed. Her face was worn though her body in a tank top and cutoffs was still slim-hipped and youthful. How did she keep her figure like that after three kids? Claire wondered. Meanwhile she could not shake off the ten or so pounds she’d gained in as many years, despite vigilant dieting. Her body no longer fit her small head and short hair, which had begun to gray in her late twenties, with a pronounced streak near the temple. That streak with her side-parted, marcelled bob had a deliberately retro effect that, in her youth, had been striking. But now, at forty-three, she worried it actually aged her.
She pulled out her phone to call Sebastian. It only had one signal bar, so she sent a text: Where are you? Think she wants us in and out. Sometimes she wondered why he even owned a phone. He’d been skeptical about the move, and she suspected his tardiness was his way of expressing it. She felt the old resentment chafing and pushed it down while she inspected the rest of the house. In the entrance hall, near the narrow staircase leading to the second floor, she passed a tiny bathroom; on the dark linoleum were nail clippings and swirled clumps of blond hair.
Shuddering, she closed the door. Further back was a large bedroom that could be converted into Sebastian’s studio. There were toys and shoes on the floor, clothes strewn over chairs and doorknobs, random boxes piled into corners. Claire couldn’t imagine the house being empty by the following week, much less fit to move into. She’d have to have the place fumigated. The irony was that she’d heard April cleaned houses in Freehold and Hudson. It was incredible she could live like this in her own home.
Claire had been warned but was still unprepared for how decrepit everything was. The wood floors creaked, the walls and ceilings were filthy, the plaster was cracked in several places. Still, even with the liens on the house, they’d be getting it for less than thirty. Her uncle figured it would take another eighty or so to get the place fixed right. If they got seven hundred for their apartment, minus the taxes and balance on their mortgage, even after paying him back they’d still make over three hundred thousand dollars.
Karl had suggested a reasonably priced, reliable contractor who could, he said, “deal with most personalities”—a tacit acknowledgment of her husband’s mercurial moods. Sebastian would be overseeing the renovation, living in the house full-time while she stayed in the city four days a week. It was a temporary arrangement, until they sold their apartment. Then she’d work mostly from Cedar Ridge, going twice a month to her midtown office at Perspectives, a luxury travel magazine, where she was the senior photo editor.
She returned to the living room, deciding to wait for Sebastian before going upstairs. April was sitting in the kitchen, wrapping up dishes in newspaper. She looked up and asked, “So? You having buyer’s remorse?” Her voice was so flat Claire couldn’t tell if she was joking or serious.
“Not at all. The house has good bones.” She crossed the room and opened the door leading to the side deck.
“Oh wow, look at that.”
“What.” April scraped back her chair and walked toward her.
Claire was looking out at a rectangular swimming pool, long drained of water. Its walls, once painted bright aqua, were now a bleached chalky blue. A blanket of dried leaves covered the shallow end; at the deep end stood the rotted wooden base of a diving board. Dandelions pushed through fissures along the pool’s seams and corners, with taller weeds around the edge. She could still see traces of its former grandeur despite the decay. “It’s kind of beautiful in its way,” she breathed. “So ruined.”
April stared at her like she was crazy. “It was beautiful thirty years ago, when we could swim in it. When we could afford the maintenance.”
Claire reddened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be insensitive.”
April shrugged. “I just don’t get your idea of beauty. Karl didn’t mention the pool?”
“He did. He just said it wasn’t—he didn’t take any pictures.” To change the subject, Claire asked, “Where will you be going?”
“Not far. I found a share about a mile up in Pine Hollow, so the kids don’t have to change schools.”
“Oh, well it’s nice you’ll still be close.” But in fact the thought of April’s proximity disturbed her. The woman was so overtly hostile. Claire was used to being liked, and people she could not win over caused her more distress than she cared to admit. She also didn’t feel the house could be fully hers with the former owner hovering nearby.
They stood awkwardly, with nothing more to say. She could palpably feel April’s impatience. At that moment, to her relief, she got a text from Sebastian saying he was on his way.
The woman was young and hugely pregnant—so young her pregnancy seemed almost obscene, and yet so benign in her aspect, so graceful in her movements, he could not imagine her any other way. Every weekday morning Sebastian went to The Horizon Cafe for his latte and muesli with yoghurt; usually she was the one who waited on him. Her name was Anna, pronounced “Ah-na,” and she was a member of The Third Eternals, a religious group that practiced an archaic form of Christianity. They believed that amongst the three categories of mankind—the unjust, the righteous, and the holy—only the latter, those willing to serve the Messiah, survived mortal death for a second unending life. They weren’t eager to engage new converts and were actually known to oust unfaithful members. A quiet community of carpenters and farmers, they owned the cafe and had become a fixture in Cedar Ridge over the last decade, though some locals were still suspicious and considered them a cult. They did not cut their hair and dressed in modest, unadorned clothing. The younger men with their full beards and checked shirts could almost pass as visiting hipsters from Hudson—but the women, like Anna, with their natural faces, long braids, and ankle-length dresses, seemed distinctly of another era.
Sebastian could not understand his fascination with her. She was not beautiful or even arresting, the way Claire had been. Her smooth round face was pleasant but plain, and she always had a slight sheen of sweat around her hairline. More inexplicable to him was the fact that he’d always been somewhat repulsed by pregnant women. He’d found their lumbering ambulation bovine-like, inducing in him a feeling of claustrophobia. Nor was he particularly fond of children. When Claire found out in her early thirties she was prone to her mother’s type of cancer, she made the difficult decision to remove her ovaries. It had been terrible to witness her anguish, but a part of him had also been relieved.
The fact that Anna was also young provoked in him a feeling of acute self-loathing. He’d never been one of those idiot men who chased after juveniles. He’d never even cheated on his wife in their seventeen years together. Once or twice he’d been tempted, but in the end, it hadn’t seemed worth the hassle. Despite her efforts to hide it, Claire was a possessive woman. Sebastian, while slight in height and build, was handsome, with a thick sweep of dark blond hair and piercing blue eyes. Before his accident, he never bothered about his appearance. Now he felt self- conscious and on bad days, even deformed.
Sebastian had constructed installations for the Guggenheim. Eight months ago, a stack of plywood fell off a ramp and onto his left side, breaking his collarbone and dislocating his shoulder. After a prolonged dispute, the museum finally decided to settle. It hardly felt like a victory. Despite surgery and months of physical therapy, his left shoulder now drooped lower than the other and moved with obvious stiffness. He was depressed and in discomfort, popping Wellbutrin and Percocet. The meds had killed his libido; he and Claire hadn’t had sex in four months. And his worker’s compensation would only last another year, through the end of 2009.
Anna came and stood by his table, her small hands cupped lightly under her belly, which in the last two weeks jutted out more prominently. She pointed to his half-eaten bowl of muesli. “Would you like me to wrap that up?”
Sebastian usually disliked takeaway leftovers, their sad, diminished appearance once reopened—but he did not want to seem wasteful. “Thank you. And another latte when you can. How are you feeling today, Anna?” It was the closest he could allude to her condition, sensing that direct questions would be inappropriate.
“I’m very good, Sebastian. This morning it’s been quiet. And you?” She had a gentle, melodic voice. It was one of the qualities that most deeply affected him; that and the calm expression in her fair-lashed, light brown eyes, suggesting wisdom beyond her years.
“Oh, fair. How is Luke—I hope he’s well?” He always inquired after her husband, though he’d only met him once, outside the Eternals’ large communal farmhouse a few doors down from the cafe. Luke was a tall, pink- cheeked boy who worked on the dairy farm nearby. Anna had been sitting with him on the front porch swing; when Sebastian walked by and waved, she stood up to make introductions. They’d seemed to Sebastian more like siblings than husband and wife. They did not touch each other affectionately or even casually. He could not imagine their conjugal relations.
“Luke is very well, thank you. I’ll pass on your greeting to him.” The usual careful, formal exchange. He could never tell if her diffidence was her true nature or if she felt unsettled by his company. He knew some people found him intimidating and tried very hard not to have that effect on her. Despite their almost daily interaction the past month, he knew very little about her background, except that she and Luke had come from Cambridge to “help grow” the Cedar Ridge branch. Some Eternals, he’d read, were born into the community and never knew another way of life. It was easy to imagine her that way, insulated from the real world, like some kind of earthborn alien. This otherworldly quality was disrupted by her pronounced belly, with its jarring, unwanted eroticism.
For months, he’d lost all sexual feeling, only for it to come back in the form of this ridiculous fetish. He was either on the verge of some mental crisis or he needed to start a new project. But he was unable to paint, had barely set up his studio, which would be temporary anyway, like everything else in the house, until the renovation was completed. They were starting with the rooms upstairs, opening walls and adding insulation. For now he slept in the living room, on the new queen mattress they’d purchased, which awaited the perfect antique bed of Claire’s country fantasy. On the days she came up, going to flea markets and yard sales seemed to be her main occupation. She was also trying her damnedest to ingratiate herself with the locals, which irked and embarrassed him. He did not care for her cadre of “lovely people”; he preferred castoffs and eccentrics, less to socialize with than to observe their peculiarities. It was ironic, he thought, that someone who collected friends the way she did had chosen him as a mate.
Though the flip side of that could apply to him.
He’d always yearned for the time and space to make his art. Now he had it, and all he could do was waste that time obsessing over some knocked-up child-bride Jesus disciple. Did he think he wanted to paint her? He painted dense, psychedelic landscapes on small canvases. A decade earlier, he’d been on the cusp of real recognition, with solo shows in local galleries and group exhibitions in Baltimore, Chicago—even Art Basel in Switzerland. Then the momentum shifted toward other, younger artists, leaving him stuck in a mid-career trough. Briefly, he indulged in the vision of a rejuvenated buzz around his lush new canvases of Anna’s body, the sphere of her clothed belly and breasts abstracted in sections, stray fingers or a lace-edged collar floating along a perimeter. Then he snorted in disgust. Even his daydreams were a cliché. He’d gone utterly dry. No, he didn’t want to paint her. What he wanted to do was more simple and base.
He bolted his latte, paid the check, and left the cafe. Really, he was losing his mind. Next he’d be lusting after llamas and burros. At least out here he’d find one.
Walking back home on the narrow highway, he passed the usual storefronts and small businesses, all open at random hours: the second-hand store run by Brooklyn transplants; the post office; the historical brick B&B. He saw his neighbor Duncan through the open gate of his yard, sitting in his underwear on his back porch, a large brace over his right knee.
“Hey man!” Duncan yelled, lifting a bottle of scotch. “Wanna shot?”
“No thanks,” Sebastian said curtly. He’d made the mistake once of taking the man up on his offer and barely extricated himself after an hour. Later that day, Duncan tripped over his bathmat, passed out, and woke up with a fractured kneecap. The next time he saw Sebastian he tapped his bad shoulder and said, “See buddy, you jinxed me. Now we’re both busted up.” Sebastian had tried to avoid him since.
Walking up the hill to his house, he saw a large green pickup parked just outside by the curb, its back bed facing him. The truck looked familiar; it took him a moment before he realized why, and then a pair of eyes flashed on his through the rearview mirror before it peeled away.
All day long rain fell over the valley, turning everything flaccid and heavy with moisture. Cicadas in the meadow were finally silent. Leaves had begun to drop and change color. It was the end of September, and Claire could already feel a sharp nip in the air. She ran all her errands that morning, getting in and out of the car in her mackintosh, trudging through mud and wet grass to go to the vegetable stand, the poultry farm, and the organic store. Next on her list was a big outdoor flea market in Pine Hollow she’d heard about and wanted to explore. The weather was discouraging, but it might keep other people away and give her a better selection. Besides, there was nothing to do back at the house. Sebastian was in his studio, deep into something he wasn’t ready to share, and rainy days inside always made her stir crazy.
She was especially anxious these days, with the economy in sudden free-fall. The apartment wasn’t selling, their listing agent was nervous, and at work there were closed-door meetings and whispers about downsizing. In the last two weeks, advertisers had cut back sharply. Her boss reassured her, “Don’t worry, Claire, you’re safe.” Mitch was the deputy editor. He’d always liked her. Still, why wasn’t she in those meetings? If only they’d listed their apartment even three months earlier! She was sure someone would have snapped it up.
With her wipers whipping back and forth, she drove slowly north along Highway 61, passing two cemeteries and a pumpkin patch, until she came upon the vast flea market. Overhead tarps protected rows of long tables piled with jewelry and knickknacks, and large grassy areas crammed with furniture, paintings, and rugs. Claire made a beeline toward the furniture vendors. She knew exactly what she was looking for: a nineteenth-century wrought iron bedframe and headboard. She was trying to be frugal until they sold the apartment, but she had her heart set on the perfect bed.
The contractor promised he’d have the rooms upstairs finished the following week, and she was counting the days. She hated having to sleep with Sebastian on the living room floor, like college students. She also hated being apart from him most of the week. When she’d initially proposed the idea, she hadn’t factored in the emotional toll it would take, or how tiring she’d find the constant commute, schlepping to and from the city every Monday and Thursday. The transience of their living arrangement was affecting them in ways that were intangible and yet invasive.
The rain subsided. She wandered amongst the vendors and finally came upon a stack of iron headboards propped against an old sofa back. Rifling through them, she paused at the third headboard and pulled it out for closer inspection. The design was a simple bar pattern, graceful but not too ornate, with curved corners and subtle fleur-de-lis accents. The matching footboard rested behind it. Both were painted over with dirty white enamel, but Sebastian could easily strip that. Otherwise it was sturdy, unique, an incredible find. Her heart began to pound in her chest with hard, erratic thumps that left her practically breathless. This occurred when she was at sample sales and job interviews and networking events. It happened when she first met Sebastian, and when her uncle mentioned the house in Cedar Ridge.
A large woman in a denim shirt ambled over. “That’s a beauty. Eighteen-sixties. I’ve got the frame pieces too, you just hammer all the grooves together.”
“How much is it?” Claire asked casually.
The woman scrunched her face, calculating. “I’ll take one-twenty. ‘Cause of the paint being worn.”
Claire knew she could get her lower but was tired of being wet and cold. “Okay. It would be great if someone could help me carry it all to my car.” She pulled some twenties from her wallet and, looking up, saw April walking toward her, holding a steaming mug. Their eyes met. For a crazy second, remembering what Sebastian had told her, Claire wondered if she’d been followed—but the other woman looked as shocked as she felt.
Claire stretched her mouth into a smile. “Hi. What a coincidence.”
“April!” the vendor cried. “You working Connie’s table today?”
April leaned in to give the woman a hug. “Yeah, helping out, selling some of my stuff. She’s there too. Come by and say hi.”
“I will in a bit.” The vendor told Claire, “I’ll have my guy come tape these up and take ‘em to your car.” She waved, stuffing the bills inside her shirt pocket, and left the other two alone.
April spoke first. “Saw Frank Moder’s been working on the house.”
“Oh!” Claire was momentarily thrown; she hadn’t expected the woman to be so forthcoming about her spying.
Recovering, she asked pointedly, “So you’ve been by the house?”
“I have to drive that way sometimes.”
Claire couldn’t argue with that; the house was right off the highway. “Yes, we’re adding insulation and re- plastering. We want to make sure it’s well taken care of.”
“We took good care of it. Best we could.” “Of course, I’m not saying—”
“You all sell your other place yet?”
Really, she was something! But she was obviously tight with the locals; it would be best to keep things cordial.
“We have some prospects. And you? Things are good in the new place?”
April let out a harsh aborted laugh; it seemed directed as much to herself as Claire. She gave her mug a little shake. “This is getting cold. I’m gonna head off. Anyway, I’ll be seeing you.” Her last words struck Claire as less friendly than threatening—and also likely to come true.
Every Friday, the Eternals hosted a dinner on their farm to observe Shabbat, welcoming the residents of Cedar Ridge to join in the celebration. Sebastian would never have considered attending, except that Claire insisted they should go and be good neighbors. But on Thursday, she called to say she couldn’t come up until Saturday morning; she got dumped with a last-minute project that had to get out by the end of the week. They’d had cutbacks, and everyone was overburdened.
“That’s twice this week,” she hissed over the phone. “And I have to just sit here acting grateful I have a job.”
He held the phone, silent, and let her rant. What could he say? That she should be grateful, and him too? That otherwise they were screwed? The apartment wasn’t moving, even after dropping twenty thousand off the price.
Worse, their contractor, Frank, had suffered a stroke three days earlier while pulling out old tile in the kitchen. His symptoms weren’t severe, but he had numbness in his face, and the doctors needed a few more days to evaluate him. In the meantime, work on the house was on hold. The upper rooms and Sebastian’s studio were finished, but the subfloor beneath the downstairs bathroom was rotted from a pipe leakage and needed replacing, as did the entire wall along the side deck. Since Frank’s stroke, Sebastian noticed a few locals giving him weird looks, as if he were somehow at fault—most likely fueled by Duncan’s crazy rumors.
Claire asked him, “Did you strip the head and footboards yet?”
She wanted his shoulder to heal—yet she kept piling on these projects. “No. Sorry. I got caught up in something.”
He could feel her negotiating her response in the long pause. “What are you working on?” she said finally. “Are you ever going to show me?”
“When I’m further along.” He felt a strange suspension in his stomach; guilt jumbled with resentment, and the sensation of outright lying. The truth was there was nothing to show. He spent whole chunks of his day poring over articles about religious groups and cults and, when the workmen were gone, jerking off to pictures of naked pregnant women. Claire knew he wasn’t painting because there were no fumes. And though he rarely showed her his work at the beginning of a project, it was unusual for him not to even talk about it.
“I’ll strip and assemble it all this weekend,” he said, by way of amends.
“That would be nice,” she said carefully. “So I guess you’re off the hook for this Friday. But not next.” After he hung up, it occurred to him that, having geared himself up to going, he was actually curious about the Eternals’ Shabbat. There was no reason why he couldn’t go alone. Then he realized it was the prospect of going with Claire he had resisted. He could not envision introducing her to Anna. Claire had seen her at the cafe a few times, but averted her glance as she always did in the presence of pregnant women. Even when face-to-face with expectant mothers and forced to make pleasantries, she quickly found ways to extricate herself. It was painful to see her discomfort, and he told himself that was what he wished to avoid.
The last time he saw Anna was almost a week ago. After he ordered his second latte, she had surprised him by saying, “I know. You always have two, one before and after your breakfast.” It was the first remark she’d ever made to him that was remotely personal.
“Yes,” he said, his heart skipping stupidly. “I am utterly predictable.”
“I don’t think you’re predictable at all.” The boldness of her statement made him stare in astonishment. Her smile was good-humored, without flirtation or guile. The left side of her mouth curved higher than the other, forming one deep, fleeting dimple. He shifted his gaze from her face to her smooth pink neck, finally allowing himself a furtive glance at her swollen breasts and immense belly. Any day now, she would have her baby. He thought of the words ripe, fecund, lush. Silently, he tasted the way they rolled in his mouth.
The older woman who managed the cafe approached the table. She said in a firm voice, “Anna, go to the kitchen, please, and check on the carrot bread. I’ll clear these plates.” It was obvious to Sebastian she was enforcing distance between them; less clear to him was why. He’d done nothing wrong. He was sure he’d behaved discreetly.
When he didn’t see Anna at the cafe for two days in a row, he asked about her to the young man who waited on him.
“She’s resting. They feel she should not exert herself.” “Who’s ‘they’?”
“Her midwives,” the young man said, blushing.
“She’s okay though?”
“Yes. But it might be some time before she returns.”
Sebastian couldn’t help feeling they were deliberately keeping her away from the cafe. Away from him. If he attended the Shabbat alone, he would have to have a good reason. Claire might accept curiosity as a plausible impetus—he’d done things before out of sheer boredom—but to the Eternals he would need to convey something more sincere, some incentive that had nothing to do with Anna.
Claire stepped out to get her afternoon coffee on Friday, and when she returned to the office, the receptionist told her, “Mitch wants to see you in the conference room.”
She approached the room, feeling numb except for the part of her brain that roared, No. No way. She saw Mitch sitting with Christine from HR, and she knew. The blood drained from her face. Mitch looked up with a tight smile. “Claire, come on in.”
She crossed the room slowly and sat across from them at the large black marble table. “This is probably not good,” she said in a thin voice.
Mitch sighed. “No, it’s not. I’m truly sorry. I didn’t think things would come to this.” “Right. You told me I was safe.”
Christine interjected: “This has nothing to do with your performance, Claire. The company is undergoing financial challenges with the recent economic downturn. It’s about cash flow and overhead. Management, unfortunately, had to make some difficult decisions.”
Claire stared at the woman’s commiserating smile, her distant eyes. Bad enough the worst had happened without having to suffer the corporate jargon of this pert little messenger. It was humbling to realize how unprepared she was to deal with this. Why had she not prepared? She had never been let go from a job before. She remembered having to fire assistants on two occasions, how bad she’d felt even though they deserved it. There was nothing to be done, she realized now, but act professional.
“What is my package?” she asked.
“You’ll have twelve weeks’ severance and eighteen months’ COBRA, starting next week,” said Christine, sliding over some papers. “If you could just look these over and sign.”
“Next week,” Claire said dully. “You mean today is my last day.” So much for her urgent deadline.
Mitch avoided her eyes. “Take your time sorting through what you need. We understand it’s an adjustment.”
Twenty minutes later, she was on West 42nd Street, carrying the contents of her desk in two heavy shopping bags. She looked out at rush hour traffic and stifled the urge to cry. That would have to wait until she got home. She flagged a cab, aware it was an extravagance she could no longer afford, though today she would make an exception.
Her phone rang as soon as she got in the cab. It was Ellen, their listing agent. “Claire, I’m so glad you picked up—the Abrams just made an offer! It’s less than the asking but I think it’s fair.”
“What’s the offer?” “Six-fifty.”
“Oh, come on—”
“I know, but hear me out. Their credit is solid. They’ll put down twenty-five percent. Getting a mortgage won’t be an issue, and right now that is huge. They need something fast, and I know your timeline. Given all these factors … it’s less than you want, but is the difference worth risking this sale? My advice is we take it.”
Claire suspected she was right, but everything was happening too fast. The cab pulled up to her building. “Let me talk to Sebastian. I’ll call you back.”
Inside the apartment, it was eerily quiet. The space was already half-empty; most of the rugs and furniture had been moved to Cedar Ridge, aside from a few basic pieces. She went to the kitchen, took off her coat, and steeled herself to call Sebastian. He didn’t pick up. Of course. She hung up in exasperation, then immediately redialed and left a message: “Hi, it’s me. Lots going on here, too much to leave on a message. I’m fine but just … call me please when you get this. I really need to talk to you.”
It was a quarter to four. She stared blankly at the kitchen clock for several minutes. What was she waiting for?
In the end, she would make the decision, as she always did. She called Ellen. “Okay. Tell them yes.” “Good! I’ll start the paperwork and keep you posted. Congratulations!”
Claire considered the irony of that last remark, under the circumstances. Or was there something fateful about the timing after all? Perhaps it was a sign, the universe pushing her toward a path she would have otherwise overlooked. She had wanted to transition into a quieter life. Maybe all her ties to the city had to be yanked away in order for that to happen. Now that it was done, she felt strangely light. She looked around at the apartment, letting the reality of her new situation sink in. Already it felt like she no longer belonged there.
She stood up abruptly and went to the bedroom. Grabbing her overnight bag from the closet, she threw in a few clothes and put on her coat again. There was a 4:20 express train going to Hudson. She intended to be on it.
Sebastian spent most of the day in the garage, stripping all the bed parts. It was smelly, messy work, but after five hours, finally all the pieces gleamed a uniform gunmetal. He took them upstairs to the bedroom and, after pushing the mattress against a wall, quickly assembled the frame. Lifting the dead weight of the mattress onto the frame was harder. He winced at the pain in his shoulder, cursing his limited mobility. When it was done, he stood panting and sweating, surveying his work with grim satisfaction. He didn’t much care for the bed, but he would make it up, and sleep on it, and hope it might appease Claire’s chronic discontent.
By the time he showered and dressed in a clean shirt and pants, it was past five, almost sunset. He rushed out the door and then, seeing dark clouds, ran back and grabbed an umbrella. As he neared the Eternals’ farmhouse, he heard singing and could see several candles flickering through the front windows. The door was ajar and he let himself in. One of the elders greeted him at the entryway. “Welcome, Sebastian. Go ahead to the dining room and join the others.”
He pointed to a large room past an archway, where about forty people stood congregated, singing hymns.
For the first time she felt pity for the other woman, for her poverty and displacement, her reliance on old charms to stave off loneliness.
Most of them were Eternals and their children, with a dozen or so other neighbors. Sebastian stepped quietly toward the darkened room, feeling conspicuous at his late arrival. His eyes adjusted to the light as he got closer, and he saw two long tables set with white tablecloths, candles in decorative holders, and several covered dishes amidst an array of china and silverware. He was surprised by the display. The Eternals were usually so unostentatious. Not that this was in any way vulgar; on the contrary, the entire tableau struck him as reverent. He found himself oddly moved.
When they finished the last hymn, people began to mill about and converse in the dining room. Sebastian recognized a few neighbors and some of the Eternals from the cafe. They nodded politely, but to his relief, made no move to engage him. He saw Anna across the room, already seated at one of the tables next to Luke. She looked up, saw him, and quickly lowered her eyes. Even in the dim light, he could swear he saw her blush. He was about to walk toward her when one of the Eternal women announced: “Everybody, please, seat yourselves. Hiram is about to start the Kiddush.” There was a discreet but hasty scramble around the tables, like a polite version of musical chairs. He had no choice but to lower himself into the nearest seat, next to an elderly Eternal couple.
The room went quiet. Two women at the head of each table poured wine into small metal cups and passed them around. Hiram, an elder, recited a blessing for several minutes. At the conclusion, everyone said “Amen” and sipped from their cups. He then blessed two loaves of challah and sliced them, distributing the bread to each table. Once everyone had eaten a portion, conversation resumed. The dinner dishes were uncovered to reveal platters of steamed trout and vegetables grown on the farm: green beans, roast potatoes, squash … Sebastian found it incredible that they prepared such feasts every week. Still, he found the meal interminable. He tried his best to converse with the Eternal couple, but their reserve on top of his produced awkward silences.
Finally, a few young girls began to clear away the plates. The men stood and started to leave the room, some of the women following. Sebastian asked the older man, “What happens now?” The man said, “We sing, we converse in the parlor. We celebrate. Everyone is welcome to stay—though of course, no one is obligated.” He pushed back his chair to stand up, and his wife did the same. Sebastian wondered if he’d just been dismissed. He debated what to do. The large clock in the room showed it was still early, only six-thirty. Everyone else appeared to be heading toward the parlor.
At the other table, he saw Anna raise herself carefully off her chair and leave the room. Luke stood talking to one of the elders while most of the other women bustled back and forth to the kitchen, laden with dishes. Picking up his jacket and umbrella, Sebastian followed Anna to the parlor and saw her go through a set of double doors leading out to the back porch. Weaving through the gathering crowd, he crossed the room and hovered by the doors, checking to make sure no one was watching. Then he went outside too.
It was dark and misty, almost obscuring the full moon. Anna stood several yards away on the vast lawn, looking up at the house. When she saw him, she turned and began to walk away. He ran down the porch steps and caught up to her easily.
“Anna, what’s the matter? Why are you running away?”
She kept walking with her face averted, her hands buried in the pockets of a long sweater. “I wasn’t—oh, we should be careful! I shouldn’t be talking to you …”
She gave him a quick, sideways glance. “Some of the counsels feel that you are … perhaps too attentive. They are not sure of your effect on the community. If you are a good man.”
“I see.” He felt renewed humiliation and outrage at being maligned—yet those accusations had allowed them this opportunity to finally speak with frankness. “I’m sorry. I never meant to implicate you in anything. I thought we were friends. We are, aren’t we?”
She looked up at him and said quietly, “I don’t know.”
“If it seems I’ve been studying you it’s because—well, I’m a painter. I’m not sure if you knew that.”
“Yes … I heard this somewhere.”
“I’d like to paint you,” he blurted. Her eyes opened wide, as if he’d proposed something indecent. For a moment he worried he’d gone too far.
“Paint—me? Why?” Her voice quavered, but in its tremulous modesty he heard curiosity—and the fact that she was flattered.
“I’m not sure why,” he said. “The discovery is part of the process. I never really know why something compels me until I start the work.” They had wandered so far across the lawn that they were now near the neighboring property. It began to drizzle. He put on his jacket and opened his umbrella over them, steering her by the elbow lightly toward the curb. “Would you be willing to sit for me? Just a quick study … it wouldn’t take more than a few minutes. We’re only three houses down.”
“Now? Oh Sebastian, I would like to but—I should get back. Perhaps another time.”
Propelled by desperation, he pleaded with her: “There won’t be another time, Anna. Once you have your baby. You know that.”
He couldn’t believe his own audacity; he half expected her to slap him. But she only dropped her head and said, “No, you’re right. There won’t be another time.” There was genuine regret in her voice and, he sensed, a deeper sadness from sources unknown to him. She paused in thought for a while and then seemed to come to some inner decision. “What would you need me to do?” she asked.
Moments later—he wasn’t quite sure how it had happened—she was crossing the lit threshold of his front door. Her actual presence in his home had the quality of a surreal, suspended fantasy. They’d hardly spoken while they walked down the street in the rain, huddled under his umbrella. Now inside they were quiet too, and awkward with each other. He knew he had to be authoritative and set her nerves at ease. “Come this way … my studio’s in the back.” He flicked on the hallway light, apologizing for all the construction. Then he unlocked the door to his studio and led her inside. The room was sizable and brightly lit, with a floor made of rough wooden planks, and a large shaded window. There was a worktable with two low wheelie stools in the center of the room, cabinets against one wall, and a daybed angled in a corner. Several canvases of varying sizes were propped against the walls; only those that were blank faced out.
“Anna, I’d like you to sit here,” he said, helping her to the daybed. She sat down cautiously and peeled off her sweater, folding it beside her. “Just face me and hold your hands in your lap, like this.” After he positioned her, he grabbed a portable easel from the table and, sliding onto a stool, drew close to her. His hand trembled as he made several quick marks with a charcoal nub. It had been ages since he’d sketched anything and now he felt like an amateur, his first strokes so inept they hardly resembled anything human. A rumble of thunder in the distance startled them both. Soon they heard the heavy pattering of rain. “Are you comfortable?” he asked, to diffuse his own nervousness.
She shook her head and began to rise from the daybed. “I’m so sorry, I think I need to—is there …?” She turned pink and he understood.
“Oh yes. I’ll show you the way upstairs. I’m afraid they’re still working on the restroom down here.”
Hearing this, she hesitated. Then she said, “All right.” At the foot of the stairs she turned to him and said with surprising insistence, “Please, I’ll find it. Can you just wait for me here?”
“Of course,” he said. “It’s to your right, past the bedroom.” He watched as she made her way up the stairs, gripping the banister for leverage. He wanted to help her, to let her lean against him, but he knew she wouldn’t allow it. For the sake of her modesty he turned away, deciding to wait for her in the living room. A moment later he heard a sound, like a stifled cry. He walked back to the foot of the stairs and called up: “Anna? Are you all right?” Then he heard a low, prolonged groan. Racing up the stairs, he found her hunched over in the hallway, clutching the bedroom doorframe. There was a large wet pool at the top of the stairwell, staining the braided Craftsman rug Claire found the week they moved in. Anna’s water had broken; she hadn’t even made it to the bathroom.
Looking closer, he noticed clots of blood in the fluid. “Jesus Christ,” he said.
She groaned again, doubling over, and twisted further into the doorway. He rushed over to hold her up and saw sweat pouring on her brow and cheeks. “Anna, we need to get you over to the bed. Can you do that?” She shook her head, making whimpering, animal sounds. He half carried, half dragged her over to the bed, which only had the bare mattress on the frame. Clumsily, he lowered the unwieldy weight of her body onto the mattress. She lay across it sideways, her legs hanging off the edge. He tried to straighten her and lift her legs onto the bed but his shoulder pulled painfully and he had to stop. Her eyes were glazed, unseeing; spittle leaked from a corner of her open mouth. Sebastian noticed the dark stain on the front of her skirt … soon it would seep onto the mattress. He stepped back and saw that his shirtsleeve was soaked in blood; there were also several large spots smeared across the newly finished floor. Everything up to this point had passed by in a dreamlike haze, but now he perceived each detail with vivid, heightened clarity. He stared down at her in growing panic.
She covered her eyes with one hand, weeping in fear and shame; with the other, she clutched at her abdomen.
Her writhing and moaning were unbearable. “I’m going to call for help,” he said, reaching in his pocket for his phone. It wasn’t there. “I’ll be right back,” he told her, and raced downstairs to look for it. It wasn’t in any of the usual places. “Goddammit!” he screamed. He had to get help. He thought about the Eternals a few doors down … but what if he left her and she died? There was also the very public disgrace he would bring upon them both. He stood frozen with indecision. Outside, the rain poured down with increasing force. From above, she let out another cry, this one more high-pitched and desperate.
The train pulled into Hudson early, at 6:10, but Sebastian still hadn’t called. Claire had tried him again twice and left messages, detailing her arrival time. As she disembarked, she looked through the crowd on the platform, hoping he might have decided to just show up. But he wasn’t there. She waited for a while in the parking lot, watching the light fade into a bleak, colorless sunset. Then she got cold and went inside the station.
It wasn’t much warmer. She sat on a bench and started to call Karl, but then remembered he and her aunt were in Albany for some function. Taking a taxi for a thirty-minute ride would cost at least fifty dollars—more than her train ticket. She was cold and getting hungry. There was a pub nearby, she remembered, which had decent food and wasn’t expensive. She left Sebastian another message while she walked the two blocks over to Mackey’s Grill. It was packed. All the tables were occupied, and even the bar was full up. Of course, she thought. Friday night. It seemed she had one bad idea after another.
Someone bumped into her hard and hissed: “Told ya I’d see you again.”
Claire yelped and whirled around. April stood before her grinning. She was heavily made up, her blonde hair tousled and sprayed. She wore tight jeans and a wifebeater tank that showed her black bra straps. Claire could only sputter, “You!”
April laughed, her eyes shining. “Jesus, your face! You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” “It’s not funny,” Claire said. “You really scared me.”
“That’s what I meant to do! What’re you doing here? Why’re we always running into each other?” She spoke with the high energy of someone who’d had a few.
“I’m waiting for my husband.”
“You’re always waiting on him! Have a drink meantime.” She grabbed Claire by the arm and pulled her toward the bar, where she already had a stool and half a beer waiting. A slack-bellied man in a wrinkled suit sat next to her.
“Cliff,” she said, “scoot off and let my friend here sit. Come on, be a sport.”
He didn’t look happy about it but said, “Sure thing,” giving his seat up to Claire. For a few minutes, he tried to talk to April with Claire in between them. Finally he gave up and turned to someone else. April leaned in and whispered, “Phew! Thought I’d never get rid of him.” Claire realized April had only used her to deflect unwanted attention—but on the other hand, she now had a seat at the bar, so April had served a purpose too. “I mean,” she was saying, “he wants to buy me a beer, okay, but huh!—the day I’m that desperate, shoot me. No way he’ll ever be the father to my kids.”
“Where are your kids now?” Claire asked, before realizing it might sound judgmental.
April didn’t seem to notice. “They’re at home. Maddy can watch them for a while. That’s the only good part about her being fifteen. Gives me a chance to have a life too.”
Claire couldn’t help wondering what kind of a life that must be. She looked at April in the glare of the bar lights, at the fine lines beneath her brightly painted face. For the first time she felt pity for the other woman, for her poverty and displacement, her reliance on old charms to stave off loneliness. Claire was jobless now and feeling displaced too—but at least she had the hope of a brighter future, and, despite his flaws, a husband with whom she shared a long history.
The bartender came up and topped off April’s drink without asking. Claire ordered a red wine and a chicken sandwich.
“You’re eating?” April asked, with obvious surprise. “Yes,” Claire said, embarrassed. “I’m actually starving.”
April shrugged. But when the food came, Claire could feel April’s eyes on her. At first she felt self-conscious and judged. Then it occurred to her that maybe April was the one, in fact, who was starving. “Why don’t you have the other half of my sandwich?” she offered, pushing her plate over. “Really, I can’t eat it all.”
April looked at her warily, like she was suspicious of charity. “Nah, I don’t love chicken. But maybe I’ll pick at your fries.”
“Take them all, seriously. I don’t need the carbs, and you’re so skinny.”
“Ha,” said April dryly, but she seemed pleased. She wolfed down her fries before Claire had even taken three bites of her sandwich. She was amazed by the woman’s appetite, shocking for someone so scrawny. When the fries were all done, April exhaled loudly. “I’m stuffed. Shit, I think I’m even sober.”
Claire, on the other hand, could feel the wine finally taking the edge off her strained nerves. What a long, bizarre day it had been. With a jolt, she realized that her phone still hadn’t rung. She checked it to make sure she hadn’t missed a call.
“No word from your man?” April asked.
“No. The truth is, I’m starting to get worried. But I’m also pissed! I’ve left four messages, and I don’t know if he’s not checking his phone or if something’s happened. I guess I won’t know until I get home, except I can’t go home until he comes and gets me.” Claire stopped, stunned at how much she’d disclosed. But it felt good to finally vent.
“If you want I can give you a lift. I mean, I know where you live and all. Ha.” “Oh! That’s awfully—well, but I don’t want to rush you.”
“Oh hell,” April said, looking around, “I’ve been here since four-thirty. Haven’t seen much worth staying for.” “Well, if you’re sure … I’d really appreciate it. At least let me get this, then.”
When Claire opened the door to step outside, it was pouring rain. “Dammit. I don’t have my umbrella.”
April said, “We’ll have to make a run for it. Come on!” She sprinted through the parking lot in her heels, and after a second, Claire followed. The truck wasn’t far but even so, by the time they clambered in they were both soaked. “Jesus!” April yelled. “It’s fucking cold!” She turned on the lights and wipers and blasted the heat.
Claire nodded, her teeth chattering. “Sh-shit.”
April looked at her, eyes agog and shivering, and they both burst out laughing. It was hard for Claire to remember why she’d felt such dread in April’s presence. She knew the moment meant nothing, that it would be gone as quickly as it came—but for now, she was grateful to have this truce.
When the windows were defogged, April pulled out slowly onto the dark wet street. For a long time there was nothing but the fast steady squeak of the windshield wipers. Then Claire heard a deep crackle of thunder in the distance. “Wow,” she whispered. As they turned onto the two-lane highway, the rain began to pound, hard pellets lashing against the windshield. They could barely see beyond their own headlights. Claire had the sensation of being in a small boat at sea … it was exciting and frightening but also soothing in a strange, insular way. Her eyelids fluttered closed and she fell into a deep, exhausted sleep. She woke up with a jerk when the truck stopped. April leaned over to shake her shoulder. “Hey. You knocked out. We’re here.”
At first, Claire was too relieved at the sight of the lit hallway to notice anything unusual. Still foggy with sleep, she called out to Sebastian and then, seeing that the living room was dark, was about to go upstairs when she noticed that the door to his studio was open, and that the light in there was on as well. Whenever she was home he kept that door closed. Of course she’d been in the studio—not that there was anything to see, everything was always put away—but only when he was there too. In all their years together she had never gone through his private things, his files or mail or computer; it was beneath her, but also, her curiosity had never overpowered her fear of what she might discover.
She went down the hallway and paused outside the doorway. “Sebastian?” she said softly, poking her head in. No one was there. She walked in and saw one of the stools over by the daybed, and a rough sketch on the table. She examined it, but could not make out what it was; it seemed just a series of crudely rendered curves. Then she noticed the sweater on the daybed. She knew even before she picked it up that it wasn’t her husband’s, nor any man’s for that matter; something about its careful folding, its marled natural yarn and crochet stitch. She’d hardly absorbed the shock of it when she heard the sound of a woman’s cries coming from upstairs.
“Oh my god,” she said, dropping the sweater. She ran down the hall and up the stairs, her heart banging against her chest. At the top of the stairs she heard Sebastian’s voice, low and pleading: “Hold on, Anna, hold on …” She saw the dark wet stain on the floor and ignored it, rushing ahead to their bedroom. Just past the doorway she stopped short.
Sebastian, his back toward her, was kneeling in front of the bed—her bed—where a woman lay writhing and pushing, her legs splayed open, her skirt hoisted up to her massive belly. With dull shock Claire registered the blood on the floor and on his hands that were cupping the woman’s knees. He was saying to her, “Something’s coming, I see it …”
“Sebastian, my god—what are you doing?”
He whirled around and saw her. “Claire,” he said slowly, as if he was testing the sound of her name. She had never seen his face so contorted. “Help me. You have to help me.”
Between the woman’s legs, she saw something pushing through … it did not seem like a head and then, indeed, she saw it was not when the shape unfolded into two tiny legs. The woman screamed, digging her fingers into the mattress. “Get it out, oh please, get it out!”
Sebastian turned his attention back to her. “Come on, Anna, push … it’s coming out but it’s breech.”
“Oh no, no, it can’t be…they were right, they were all right … I shouldn’t have come here—” Her voice broke off into another anguished scream.
Sebastian yelled, “Call 911! Or get the Eternals! Please, Claire, I can’t leave her.”
Suddenly Claire knew who she was—the pregnant young woman from the cafe. “My god,” she moaned, clamping her hand over her mouth. She was going to be sick. She backed away but could not tear her eyes from the sight of her husband reaching into the woman to pull out her baby, holding onto the legs while its small torso and finally its head emerged, the umbilical cord looped around its neck. With a gush, more blood and viscera spilled out.
Sebastian unwound the cord and wiped at the baby with his bare hands. The woman was panting and groaning, trying to lift her head to see. “Is it okay? Is it a boy?”
Sebastian told her, “Yes, it’s a boy.” Claire watched as he lightly slapped the baby’s bottom, waiting for the sound of its wail. But for a long time, all she heard was her own.
Chin-Sun Lee’s stories and essays have appeared in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Believer Logger, SLICE, and Shadowbox Magazine, among other publications. She is a contributor to the anthology Women In Clothes (Blue Rider Press/Penguin 2014), edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton. She was featured with other artists in Oregon Public Broadcasting’s program “State of Wonder” in April 2015. She also collaborated and performed in the video “Spinning World” by the art/literary/rock band The Size Queens, which premiered on PANK‘s blog website. She is currently at work on a novel (“The Eternals” is an excerpt and first chapter).