In the living room, they each sit with little gaps between them, air pockets, afraid to touch.  All three rigid, backs up against the brown leather cushions, knees apart yet not relaxed, and, for all their years together, for all their memories of past holidays and Christmases and towering Fraser firs that Henry lined with Nutcracker ornaments and swollen presents, each of her sons has one foot or more of space between the next, all watching the television screen in silence.  This is not what she had in mind when they were children, when they ran through the house as a pack, Charlie leading.  And all she wants is for them to not have these empty spaces; she's done everything she can to create an atmosphere conducive to a happy upbringing, to a welcoming home, to a place that children would desire to return to.  But the thought that haunts her, though she doesn't want to use the word haunt, that hovers above her world like a burning sun, is the knowledge that for all her efforts, they are not happy, not one of them.

            Zoloft is a funny thing. She doesn't feel it at first.  The pills taste plastic, and so she washes them down with Countrytime Pink Lemonade, a drink with enough sweet and sour bite to dispel the passage of that slippery egg, of that chemical snow globe of transplanted joy, that somehow tastes devious going down.  She takes a 100 milligram pill early, when her 8:45 am alarm goes off, then zaps the rectangular black snooze button on the bedside digital clock, which allows her to return to a partial state of slumber, her dreams nothing but lightly flapping curtains, before arising in the warm embrace of her new friend.  When she wakes up for good, around 9:00 am (Emmett gets himself to school), the Zoloft has kicked in and she feels fuzzy, as if warm cotton balls have cushioned her brain and belly, as if, rain or shine or sleet, Henry or no Henry, as long as those cotton balls persist the world will be right. 

            She finds herself in the cockpit of her metallic-blue 2011 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite, driving past strip malls and not hearing the radio.  Something in Libya.  Doesn't matter.  Her stomach swells.  More warmth.  Henry—what he's done—it slides off, melts away, pain is an ice cube in summer; she'll drive today.  She'll drive far.  Maybe take the Eisenhower to Woodfield Mall, up in Schaumberg.  Be gone all day.  Shop.  Shop for her sons, for herself.  Bath and Body Works has that new lotion—Country Chic, as well as the new Lilac Blossom candle.  Three of each, she'll get, giving a couple away to Laura and Kath when they meet for Wednesday lunch at Panera.  They'll like that.  The cotton balls swell.  Life can be good.  And she always thought the key was to focus, to zero in on the good things and use tunnel vision to remove the bad—to ignore what Henry has become down in the Gold Coast, to ignore her sons’ refusals to stick together, to become what she wants.  But the key, the crux of it, what Zoloft has taught her, is that happiness doesn't come from zeroing in, it comes from letting go, letting slack the hold on all those cosmic ropes, of losing focus, of allowing the fuzziness to be reality, like a snowy television screen that shows a picture through interference, through white noise, through loose reception. 

              And she feels good in her Odyssey, her hands resting on the leather wheel like bird legs, though she has forgotten what day it is—no she hasn't, it's Tuesday, and she feels good and the road is an endless asphalt promise that life can be good, can endure, despite it breaking the promises it made when she was young and foolish and happy, when Henry was hers, when he lifted her and held her to him and whispered in her ear during the long nights when neither of them had money, his rough gristle against her cheek, strong arms around her shoulders. God, she can't believe how much she loved him and loves him still.  And he's out there, out in the Gold Coast, in his penthouse doing God-knows-what, although she does know what, but feels the reality of his affairs slide away and off the cotton balls; it's alright, he still loves her, she imagines him a child who needs to rebel for a bit, to steal fruit snacks from the local corner store, to spray paint the neighbor's fences, to fool around under the bleachers.  The Zoloft helps her forget that he's done it for two years now, because she knows he will come back, has to, because they are soul mates, she thinks of all the things they said to each other, she remembers when they were seniors in college and Henry had pressed his face against her neck and his big blue eyes were watering and he said that he couldn't imagine himself with anyone else, not for the rest of his life, and he cried, and she held him in that tangle of red sheets, her French posters of martinis on the wall, she held him and promised that they'd be together, and two years later they were married, and he'd written her that note that was really a poem, a poem that she still kept in the bedside table under the Bible she didn't read, and she knew he was coming back because a love like that couldn't break, soul mates didn't just forget each other, he was going through a phase. The Zoloft let her know that it would be okay, she wasn't walking a plank but a long, wide, moss-covered bridge, and there were vistas on each side, there was babbling water and smooth, white rocks and graceful deer with flat fur and gentle eyes that urged her on, that she was going to be alright, they all would, the cotton balls promised this, life could be good, life could be, could be, could be.

            The Odyssey comes back to the driveway and the radio is still going and she hasn't heard it though she knows it's NPR.  It is not Tuesday but Wednesday.  She has forgotten, though it doesn't matter, because Charlie is back and Barkley is back and Emmett is at school but Emmett looks at her with not sadness, not anger, not love, with some other emotion she can't identify, which the cotton balls prevent her from identifying, but it doesn't matter because the kid can take care of himself.  She exits the minivan and reaches into her purse and takes another 100 milligram tablet of Zoloft and washes it down with the Diet Pepsi Wild Cherry, the ingredients of which are carbonated water, caramel color, phosphoric acid, aspartame, potassium benzoate (preserves freshness), gum arabic, natural flavors and caffeine. 

            Ingredients are fascinating to her now, she likes learning about them, about how they build temples of sensation inside the human body, their particles like tiny worker bees, everything she eats or drinks has tiny ingredients, and they all do something, and this is why Zoloft is not a cheat, because it's the same as everything else, just a series of ordered ingredients used to produce a feeling, a reaction, and why not have the reaction she wants?  And last night when Charlie yelled at her it was so hard to smile but smile she did even though she was at the end of a dose the cotton balls were still there and helped her get through the labor of cleaning up their ruined meal and the way all three of her sons stood up and went to different corners of the house, none of them together; it's like she needs glue or even cement to keep them together though togetherness is all she wants.  But it was a good day of driving and shopping and she tries to remember the stores she went to; one of them was Coach and another was Pandora and another was Michael Kors and even though she didn't buy anything it was still nice to feel warm and feel the attention of the well-dressed and tanned young men who asked her how they could help and assumed she had money and probably a family; how could they not assume that she had a family and with this came a husband, came Henry.

            What she couldn't think about was what it was like to be sixty and be surprised at her reflection every time.  What were these bags under her eyes and these fault lines in her cheeks and these gray streaks in her hair that stuck out like the quills of a foreign, less elegant bird?  But then when she stayed in front of the mirror she could see the places in which her face was still elegant; she saw the taut roundness of her face and what Henry called her “button” nose and her lips that still looked young—he had to admit her lips hadn't changed one iota.   Her short haircut was the one thing she'd altered since he'd left and it showed more of her neck and she knew that was also a positive.  But the negatives were these fault lines and these bags and the way her eyes seemed hollowed out, and the fact that she might be too skinny and even though her tits had never been huge now they seemed shrunken and her breast bone showed but she was sixty; what did anyone want or expect? 

But the Zoloft, the Zoloft, kicking in now, warmth, hot embers in a furnace growing to a roaring fireplace in the log cabin by her moss-covered bridge.  She was going to be alright.  And it was pleasant how these doses helped to make time stop and jump and pass, how it smoothed out the corn maze of each day, smoothed it out and took her above it all, and she was vaguely aware of having gotten emotional regarding Henry but now the cotton balls were back and it was okay.  She was warm and back in the living room and her three sons were watching television all apart, and isn't this the place that she started?  She tried to remember how she had recently seen them and yes, they'd been on the couch and it seemed like it had just happened and she wondered briefly if she was taking more of each dose than was prescribed but here she was, back with her sons who were sitting with a space between them, little gaps, air pockets, afraid to touch.

Erik Fassnacht teaches English in Chicago, has studied in Ireland, Prague, and yes, Iowa City, and is currently working on his M.F.A. Beyond that, he enjoys food much more than he probably should.



Copyright 2009