“Well?” says Betty, fingers of her left hand drumming in her palm. “Will you come?”
Alma throws a handful of veined carrot skins into the sink. They lie curled and graying across the drain. It is early in the afternoon, August; the heat in the kitchen is like custard. It never occurs to Alma that her sister will expect kindness from her. She finds herself presented with the abrupt impossibility of failing to offer her sister anything she asks.
“Louise is going. You know, to help out with the baby at the beach. Maybe you could rope Nick into coming along. We hardly see him anymore.”
“You know how he is,” says Alma, running the tap.
Betty produces a cigarette from her bag and lights it at the stove. She is unapologetically plump, well-arranged, hair spun back and hemline straight. She leans back against the countertop, watching her sister’s shoulders. Alma is wearing a narrow orange dress; her skin is flushed.
“So how about the beach? The kids hardly see you. I swear, I’d never see you if I didn’t just pop over like this. Would it kill you to come? It’s Saturday. Just the family. See what you can do about Nick.”
The beach is fourteen miles away. Alma imagines she can smell the salt from here, despite the distance.
As Alma drains the sink basin, Betty says, “We’ll take the new car out, see how it drives. Matty won’t stop talking about it. I’ll bet Nick wouldn’t mind.”
Alma feels an unsurprising desire to remove herself. The familiar sticky excuses begin to come loose in her throat. There is that sheen of thoughtless regret that she will half-examine later, during the laundry: the uncooked apology that comes with inevitable disappointments.
“You know,” Alma says, “I don’t think we’ll go.” Betty taps her cigarette on the countertop. The ashes flower. Alma grimaces and reaches to clean the slate.
Betty says, “Alma, are you sure you’re alright? With everything?”
“I just don’t feel up to it this weekend.”
“You know what I mean. Are you sure you’re back to normal?” Betty’s eyes are deep-set, retreating behind her lids. “I really think you should come.”
Betty picks up her bag and lets her hands rest on her thighs, elbows against her hips. “Will you just do it for the kids? I swear, Willa’s starting to think you don’t like her.”
Alma shuts off the tap and leans against the sink. The heat is unbearable; her fingers are swelling inside their rings. “Did she say that?”
“Give me a call tonight,” says Betty. She stubs out her cigarette in a plant jar.
Alma folds laundry in the spare bedroom and decides that whatever she tells Betty, she will not mention the beach trip to Nick. If she brings it up over dinner, he will dig into his plate, meet her eyes, salt his meal and finish it. As usual, she will take his silence to mean: If you love me, you will not make me go.
In the laundry basket Alma finds a small cotton jumper and two palm-sized pairs of socks, odd items of Willa and Kitty’s that Betty has thrown into the wash. The jumper smells like detergent, a bluish, half-worn smell. She sits on the bed, feeling swiftly weak, remembering that she has eaten only two eggs, and finds herself faced with an empty room. It is not an adequate guestroom. The walls are a yellow that is almost white, the wall-sockets painted unevenly. There is an unvarnished birchwood crib that Nick built in the corner, and a large window at the end. Outside, it is almost dusk.
The only piece of art in the room is a small sketch of an airplane drawn by Nick. Alma had tacked it onto the wall two years ago, on a day when she had sweeping visions for every corner of the house. Nick is not an artist: the only things he draws are airplanes. His airplanes are very precise, the fuselage and ailerons delicately done, the windows in perfect proportion. They float on the paper, no grass drawn in, no figures for scale. Despite this—or perhaps because of it—there is something grandiose and defiant about the little Beechcraft stuck to the wall. It seems to demand something of Alma.
Once, on a fevered gallop through the house, Willa had paused below the black lines of the Beechcraft.
“Does it fly?” she asked Alma.
“Of course,” Alma had said, pointing out the minute vortex generator systems that fanned out along the wings.
There is a bloodless darkness in the room by the time Alma hears the door shut and the throb of Nick’s bag on the kitchen floor. She picks herself up, returns to the kitchen to pull the chicken out of the oven. Nick kisses her on the edge of her cheek as they pass each other on the threshold into the hall. He is just taller than she, a slender, light-eyed man, his hair a little tired over his forehead.
Alma sets places and they begin to eat.
After a moment, she pauses, fork resting on the rim of the plate, and says: “They all say that time begins to pass more quickly when you’re older.”
Nick looks at her. Her hair curls at her forehead and behind her ears; she has a small chin and thin eyebrows, and a wide road between her upper lip and her nose. She is slim and lovely and he wants to tell her she is lovely, but he is afraid to draw attention to her narrowness.
They are accustomed to Nick’s silence. He is reminded of the first year, when they both found themselves surprised by the comfort of it. The house is unimpeachably quiet. When Nick hears Alma’s voice it sounds like something that belongs in the room but is sometimes forgotten under the smells of chicken and carrots. He feels relieved, as though he has remembered the plot that belongs to him.
“By the way,” Alma says, “my sister invited us to the beach tomorrow with Matty and the kids. I guess we should go, but I don’t know, I’m just not sure I’m in the mood. Might be fun, though. What do you think?”
Nick tears a piece of skin from his leg of chicken and begins to chew. He watches her face as she eats. His silence means: I love you, and if you want me to go with you, I will.
While Alma is on the phone with Betty after dinner, she thinks about power. “It’s me,” she says, and she wonders what the difference is between power and the absence of power. “Good. Listen, Bett, I’m still not on for tomorrow. I’m sorry,” she says. She thinks of her mother: a creature thoughtless rather than powerful or powerless, grown up and given a man and two daughters and a life in a house with yellow curtains, a few happinesses and some complaints. “No, it’s not Nick, it’s me. I’m just not feeling up to it,” she says. Like a little girl, she has always considered the power of kings over vassals, of loved ones over lovers. “Sorry.” She picks up a peach from the countertop, pads against the skin, and digs her fingernail into it. There is only a small drop of juice: it is not ripe. She bites into it anyway. It’s remarkably good, an inexorable brightness behind her teeth. Of course,” she says. She looks hard at her hands, at her puckering cuticles and sculpted nails.
In the morning Alma walks three quarters of a mile down the road to her sister’s house. It is a small, unassuming bungalow, blue and brown, graced by a knobbly tree in the front. The long, new Chevelle sedan lingers in the drive. It is Saturday. The girls rush out from the porch into a glaring morning that promises heat, running like stunted, wobbly soldiers—heads down, urgent, calling to her. Alma watches their hair as it winds up and flies, Willa’s grown past her shoulders now, Kitty’s cropped around her ears. She feels slow, the heaviness in her legs growing and gathering.
Betty appears on the porch as Willa throws her hands around Alma’s hips, too tall now to cling to her legs like a greedy cat. Willa wears a white dress over her swimsuit and her feet are bare. Alma brushes Willa’s hair out of her eyes and walks gently out of her grasp. From under her arm she produces the clean jumper and socks and hands them to Betty.
“Thanks,” says Betty. “Girls, put on your shoes.”
“Where is he?” asks Alma.
“Inside, just a minute.” Betty hands small pairs of sandals to Willa and Kitty. “Thank you again for doing this, by the way. I didn’t know what I’d do when Louise said she couldn’t make it. I’m just so glad you’re around to keep an eye on him.”
Alma follows Betty into the living room. The Jetsons is playing loudly on the television. Kitty leans against the doorframe to watch George Jetson climb into his space car.
In the crib, the baby is moving his mouth sleepily, thumbs tucked inside his fists.
“Can you imagine taking him along? My god,” Betty laughs, a half-blown laugh that catches in her hair as she sweeps it hastily up off her neck. “Are you sure you’re alright? With the baby, and everything?”
Alma pauses. “Yes,” she tells her sister.
Alma waves Betty and the girls out of the house to where Willa’s father is waiting with the car. The baby has not moved: his eyes are closed, no curve into his wrists but undisturbed skin. He has a few dusky hairs strewn across his scalp. Bending, Alma moves her lips soundlessly, peering down at his chin as small as a window in the little Beechcraft sketch.
Now it is just Alma and the baby alone in the house. A smaller house than Alma and Nick’s, but not much smaller, still large enough for a front porch and three bedrooms. She sits in the living room for a long time. She touches the baby’s cheek. The baby opens his eyes fearlessly, sees her fingers and her cheeks, lets his eyelids rest again. Alma thinks of the time between the last blush of her kiss and the moment Nick’s eyes open: the even beat, familiar, given.
Alma makes a list of places she has not been. She is not a woman of wanderlust; she has never longed to get away from suburban New York. But she is a woman every so often overcome with the urge to put something in perfect order, so she makes a list. She finds that she has not been to most places in the world.
Alma has a college friend who lives in Bristol. Though she has never considered a visit before, she attempts now to imagine the English seaside.
When the baby cries Alma feeds him with the bottle. He isn’t easily satisfied; she thinks of giving him her breast, still heavy. It is a resentful weight, like a washbasin slowly losing its sea and soap to the drain. Instead she lets his upset subside.
She thinks of what it would be like to be away from Nick: no elegant wings drawn on napkins, no space between her kiss and the motion of his eyelids. She feels a strange combination of sadness and deep embarrassment at the audacity of her own ideas. She loves Nick: this is neither a passion nor a denial but a fact. She has never loved anyone for any reason but that he loved her; this is the way she loves Nick.
Mostly, she thinks of Willa’s arms around her legs—a year ago—and today around her hips, and of how close she is coming to September.
In the afternoon, when the heat has just begun to simmer down and the light is still formidable, she walks home down the road with the baby held below her breasts.
Alma does not have a plan. Many wheel through her head: planes, trains, taxicabs, trunks that she has never thought to buy before, languages that she began learning in grammar school. Betty she thinks of: Betty on the porch, holding Willa and Kitty’s sandals, and Betty’s voice drilling her in Spanish vocabulary long before Willa and Kitty were born. Yes, she thinks of leaving; she thinks of it so cautiously that when it first occurs to her she repeats it to herself to determine that it is something that might manifest in words.
“We could leave,” she says, out loud, in the kitchen. The kitchen appliances, the oven and the toaster, are not listening.
She holds the baby against the weight of her breasts. Once again it is dusk outside, and the darkness reminds her of dinner. There are cold cuts in the fridge that won’t take long.
And here is Betty: the doorbell is ringing through the kitchen and the hall. The kettle on the shelf rattles a little. Alma feels her fingers inside her rings. The baby is still asleep, fed and watered, a cotton-smelling sheaf.
Alma opens the door with her wrist, the baby still against her. “Hello,” Alma says to her sister. Her own formality surprises her. In the yard, orange heat melts into the grass.
“Alma,” says Betty, “I hadn’t realized you walked home. How did it go with the baby? All good? Hello!” she says to the baby.
Quickly, the sweat on the back of Alma’s neck cools; there are no cars in the drive (Nick has gone fishing) and she suddenly cannot imagine the reality of an automobile. “Yes,” she says, and leads her sister through the kitchen into the house.