underground water

 The next morning the wife calls three therapists. One calls back, the one whose picture she cuts out of the Independent weeks ago and leaves on the kitchen counter. If asked why, she’d say,“I’m not sure. . . .  I just had a feeling.” Of what?—she couldn’t say, then. Now she can, if asked, the morning after the night before, when she walks in and surprises the husband dancing in the dark to the eponymous song—not Springsteen’s—but the other, older one about—

 

Dancing in the dark ’til the tune ends

We’re dancing in the dark and it soon ends

We’re waltzin’ in the wonder of why we’re here

Time hurries by, we’re here and we’re gone.

 

That one.

 

     Then in a rush it all comes out.

 

    A girl a lifetime ago—a girl he hasn’t thought about in years, that’s the thing. Of a sudden she’s back. Not actually, but in troubled memory . . . in kindling imagination. He can’t stop thinking— dreaming about the candlestick of a girl. He uses words like “seize” and “possess” and “consume” to describe the girl’s hold on him, over him. . . . “Emotional hijacking!” he declaims to the wife time after time, as time hurries by, in the pale moonlight dappling the bedroom’s blue tessellated carpet, all the while pacing and panting—hands trembling, face twitching, voice shaking with excitement.

 

     The wife looks on with dazed, heavy-lidded eyes. Worry scores traces on her forehead, and fear spikes in her throat. Against a clean-line dresser she braces herself with one thin, ringed hand while the other bothers the air.

 

      When finally given space, the wife speaks. Her voice is cold and sharp. “You need to see someone,” she says, adding flatly, “I’ll go with you.” The restless hand reaches out toward him.

     

     

     The therapist, who herself is “waltzing in the wonder of why we’re here” on the fifth birthday of her still born baby, listens closely, like a doctor to a heartbeat, or a biologist to the wings of a tree hopper. Her titian hair floats like an aureole above her head, and her wide-gazing, gainsboro gray eyes cast a penumbral sadness over an otherwise bright mobile face. On the bone white wall behind her hangs a black-and-white profile of C.G. Jung with pipe, circa 1950.

   

     The wife stares at the stark photograph with half moon eyes that show a lustrous green full of melancholy irony. They stray to an art print that depicts the dominant shadow of a tiny figure that reminds her of a yellow rag doll. The figure’s oversized head has a button eye and stitched face, and a stump of a hand that cleaves to what to the wife looks like a heart-shaped, cracked cookie. It is, of course, “My Shadow Is My Only Friend.” There is other wall art, — one of a blue-eyed, pop-eyed, freckle-faced girl, uncovering Russian nesting dolls, her pink mouth agape at the whispers in her invisible left ear of a marionette with a face like her own,— all unfamiliar to the wife, all works of Adrian Borda. Her eyes, the wife’s, at last settle on a comforting corner weeping ficus of the same color as theirs. It has a single, large braided trunk and well-shaped canopy, and stands a full five feet plus in a matte finish ceramic pot with plinth. The wife regrets never being good with indoor plants. She starts to wring her thin hands, and to wonder, to worry really, why her nail tips are turning white.

 

     The husband confesses to a crushing sense of having lived the wrong life. “I feel,” he says with worry-stamped brows over wet lashes, “like —as if I just awoke to find myself—” he stops.

 

    “In a dark wood?” the therapist suggests, familiarly, after a wide pause.

 

     “Yes, yes!” the husband says with quickening faculties.

 

     “Midway along our road of life,” the therapist quotes with a sidelong glance, as if from her inmost self, “I awoke to find myself in a dark wood.”

 

     “Like living someone else’s life,” the husband appends, deadening his voice and sinking into a drooping attitude.

      

     The therapist asks about the marriage.

     

     “The marriage,” —it’s the husband who finally speaks, with some hesitance, bending his head critically toward the wife,—“the marriage—’s unconventional.”

     

     “‘Unconventional,’” the therapist muses to herself, showing a slow, expectant smile, “aren’t most?”

 

      A palpitating silence follows before the wife allows soberly, with a quivering lower lip, that she’s been seeing someone for over a year. In the crossed glances of wife and husband the therapist detects neither fear nor anger.

 

     Nodding vaguely toward the husband, the therapist asks if he knew—

 

     “Of course,” the husband says with exaggerated gallantry, “as I say—unconventional.”

 

     “And,” goes the therapist shooting a level, interpretive glance into the wife’s distraught eyes, “did you know—?”

 

      The wife pensively assents.

 

     The husband wants to write to the girl—must, he insists. If she has passed, then he shall go to her grave, he avows, and tell the girl what’s in his heart. “The thought of her not knowing—” he breaks off, verklempt, as varied visions unroll in his brain. Wife and therapist sit silently, in a suppressed sort of way.

 

     At length, over the husband’s short, drained gasps, the therapist observes that most people go through life never really showing gratitude to those most deserving. Often it isn’t until later, she portentously sighs, “much later” — here she bends forward cautiously, motioning to the box of tissues on the small round tea table of black tempered glass standing on three frail legs between them— between, that is, their red damask loveseat and her teal-hued leather arm chair — when— Her voice trails off, as she straightens up and wistfully caresses the  beige luxe scarf of wool and silk wrapped around her throat. The wife, for her part, takes a tissue for herself and hands one to the husband, like a mother ministering to a hurt and lonely child—or so it seems to the husband.

 

     The husband silently broods. Is that what I am? he asks himself, sniffling, a hurt and lonely child? Is that what it comes down to after all this time, all these years? Is that what lies coiled within me? A-a—? The word mammothrept pops into his head. Is there such a word, he wonders? And, if there is, where—where did I pick up such a—? Such an ophidian sounding word as—? Then he wonders about “ophidian,” and then, his veined temples abuzz, he views a cast of unthanked Fellini-like characters scud before the magic lantern of his mind’s eye in a series of S-curves, as if in serpentine locomotion.    

     

     

     The husband sits alone on the red damask love seat. Across the tea table the therapist envisions, as sessions mount, (twenty now), a widening gyre and a deaf falcon. Increasingly, unsettlingly, the therapist is unsure which she is, falcon or falconer. Bravely breasting bemusement she circles back to where they started.

 

     “To know the place for the first time,” she quotes with pluck and a slow smile. Then, in a low, confidential tone, “Rather than an ‘emotional hijacking,’try casting your— situation— as a story.”

 

    The husband meditates, fingers nervous on palms.

     

   “Consider,” the therapist continues, “that you have rejected or denied your story.”

 

     The husband’s face asks, “My story?”

 

     Then, from the therapist, kindly, with a profusion of patience, “That’s why you are here.” Then, sensing his consternation,“You have denied—”

   

     The husband continues to search the therapist’s eyes interrogatively, “My story?”

 

    “—or rejected.” Then, slowly nodding, the therapist repeats, abstractly, “That’s why you are here. . . .Why we are all here. To discover—or rediscover our story.” Then, sinking her lids, she adds with a veiled sigh, almost self-suggestively, “See it as a gift.”

 

     The goal, the therapist says, looking hard at him now, fixedly, is to be whole before we die. “Integrated,” she calls it, before adding with sibylline misgiving, “before the tune ends,” then the afterthought, “as it were.” He should feel fortunate, she then avers, that this is happening now rather than later, when— Her face aquiver with lamentable supplication, she alludes to all the Ivan Ilytches she’s seen.

 

     He gets it, does the husband, the Ilytch reference, but obscurely, like “mammothrept” and “ophidian.” All he can think is, “I am dying,” as he plunges into a dream he had last night of a stranger in black bent low over an open grave. He could see, he says, only the quaking, senescent line of the man’s back.

     

     “Who was in the grave?” the therapist abruptly asks, and immediately regrets not first asking how he felt.

 

      The husband rescues her misstep with short, sharp spasms of choked-back tears.

 

      “You’re grieving,” the therapist says, regaining her footing, “for lost opportunity— for an unlived life, or lives.” Then, steepling her hands, “That’s part of our story—what never happened. . . what we missed.” Then, as soulfully as fate  itself, “Perhaps the larger part.”
 

 

 

    The husband shares with the wife part of his story, and the wife shares with the husband part of hers.

 

    The wife loves him— that’s part of her story—, which she tells the husband under brooding lashes, but— “He needs me,” she adds to her part of the story, of her inamorato.

 

     “And—,” from the husband to the wife’s part of her story, “me?”

 

     The wife’s lips twitch. Then, with a mournful head shake, “He’s emotionally available.”

     “Emotionally available”—the words to the husband toll like a clapper in a bell.

 

     The husband tells his part of the story, to both wife and therapist:

 

     

     “It was a Sunday evening,” he says, adding with excruciating specificity, “September seventeenth, nineteen seventy-eight,” and then, with a vague, mirthless grin, “I sound like Rick in Casablanca,” before continuing, “the moon was full, and we were half way down the mountain.”

     

      An appreciable suffusion spreads over the wife’s face when she hears this part of the husband’s story. The therapist’s face, on its side, reflects the cold compassion of “halfway down the steep of disenchantment.”

     

     “I remember,” the husband continues,“because I had the radio on— to still the plaintive paroxysms. Yes,” he adds, “paroxysms,” ballasting the first syllable before going on. “I remember because they were reporting the Camp David agreement, on the radio, I mean— between what’s-his-name— Begin, yes Begin, and the Egyptian— Sadat!— and I was commenting, yes! I was commenting, idiotically, as I look back, how wonderful, how, idiotically, hopeful it all was and—”

 

   “And?” the therapist says.

 

    “—and she—” (only he says “you” when telling the wife this part of his story)—“she was bawling  because I’d said,—earlier, up at the cabin, I mean— it was over. . . .”  Then, he says, to both, “That, I guess,—that’s when I broke,” owning to himself frankly, more Queeg of the Caine than Rick of the Café Américain.

 

     “You—‘broke’?” says the therapist, but not the wife.

     

    “At the moment of greatest stress,” he says, adding, “emotional, I mean. . . ,” before taking his head between his hands amid a wave of hurrying thoughts.Then, with barely audible remorse, “I chose pity over truth.”  

 

     “And your wife? What did she choose?”

 

     “She chose,” he says, freeing his head and drawing a deep breath, “she chose—emotionally unavailable is what she chose.”

 

    “And,” the therapist says, leaning in, as if descrying a breakthrough, “why do you think she did that?”

 

     “Oh, that’s easy,” he says, of another part of the wife’s story. “She said as much the other night— she felt abandoned.”

    “‘Abandoned’?”

 

    He meets the therapist’s query with a throbbing silence before muttering, “Her father—an old story—a crime story, really. Y’know, how the criminal always returns to—? Only in this version it’s the victim who returns.”

 

     A long stretch of contemplative silence follows. Then, from the therapist,— like someone not wanting to go there, that is, like such a person with closed-pressed lips, tremulously, prayerfully, with a knot in such a person’s throat,— a simple, “Tell me about her—,” and somehow the husband knows she is referring to the daughter.

 

    The husband jerks his head sideward, toward the Borda of two children,—a girl with a ponytail and a boy in a striped polo shirt. The girl’s left hand is raised with fingers splayed; the boy’s, with arm bent at the elbow, rests on the girl’s shoulder. The boy’s head is bowed, the girl’s  isn’t. Each carries something in their other hand, the right one, a basket for her, a sling shot for him. They stand before a clear, enormous incandescent light bulb, girl and boy do, under a surprisingly blue night sky with starry light bulbs hanging from straight strings. It is, of course, Borda’s “The Night We Broke the Moon.” But the husband doesn’t know this, only:  

     

    They’re outside in the dark playing the flashlight game, father and daughter are. One hides, the other uses the lamp, with weak batteries, to search and find.The night air is thick with the smell of October and cold enough for both to see their breaths through watery eyes. The father glimpses a crescent moon peeking through the branches of a liquidambar and summons the daughter to see what he sees. They stand still for a time —father and daughter beneath the reptilian branches of the sweetgum, glimpsing the sliver of silver in the clear night sky.  

 

     The daughter grows restless. “Count to ten, Daddy,” she goes, “before you come looking,” before racing off, before tossing over her shoulder a frenzied, “Slowly!” before melting—

 

     “But I cheat,” the father says to the therapist, a sudden pain threading his heart, “I stop at five—” he breaks off reflectively into a murmurous silence.

 

     The therapist’s lips part as if frozen by a fog of uncertainties, before, with some effort to raise her voice above a whisper, she gets out, blankly, inscrutably, “Why five?” 

 

     Unnamed feelings bubble up like underground water wicking to the surface as their fingers fleetingly touch over the tissue box.
 

After retiring from a career teaching philosophy, Vincent Barry returned to his first love, fiction. His stories have appeared in numerous publications in the U.S. and abroad, including recently: The Saint Ann’s Review, Mulberry Fork Review,The Bitchin’ Kitsch, The Broken City,The Fem, Dual Coast,The Fiction Pool, Subtle Fiction, FictionWeek Literary Journal, Ariel Chart, Star 82 Review, Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, Children, Churches, and Daddies, and The Blotter Magazine. Barry, whose work was nominated for Best of the Net 2017, lives with his wife and daughter in Santa Barbara, California.

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