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For the long weekend, Beth went to a silent retreat. She marveled at the gold and auburn leaves of the forest along the drive, the charming houses perched on the hillsides. A small, wrinkled woman with bright eyes greeted her when she arrived. She showed Beth the grounds: the library, the yoga room, the wood cabin where she would sleep. She gave Beth a warm smile and left. The room was small and damp. Somewhere, an insect buzzed. The quiet was refreshing. In her apartment in Queens, she could always hear her neighbor swearing in Spanish next door. Hijo de puta, cabron. She never knew if he was talking on the phone or to himself. When he saw her he was extraordinarily polite, a short, stout man with a well-groomed mustache. Once, his door was open and she saw the room, full of cardboard boxes and statues of Jesus Christs, plastic and ceramic and wood, bleeding from the temples and the knees.

 

            She ate dinner alone, listening to the steady rhythm of the clock on the wall. The number three had fallen off and was lodged sideways at the bottom of the clock face. From the window, she watched a gentle sunset fade into black. She took out her journal.

            When she was a teenager, Beth had the idea that she would be a poet. She carried around a fountain pen and wrote about the melancholy of the moon. Her father discovered her poems and threw them into the trash. He had been drinking. Get a real job, he snarled, his eyes red and wild. He dug his fingers into her shoulders and shook her like a toy. Later that night, curled up in her bed, Beth heard her father cry.

These days she needed the journal for long afternoons in the hospital, when the beeping of the machines gnawed at her nerves. Writing was a distraction, a relief. She wrote down medications and contraindications, scripted conversations with the insurance company. When she got her circling thoughts onto paper, it was easier to sleep.

 

In the morning, there was a man in the kitchen, filling a small cup with water. He was tall and lithe, and moved with the confidence of an athlete. She watched him put yellow flowers in the cup. He smiled at her, a bright, trusting smile. He laced up his hiking boots outside, sitting on the grass.

            She would go for a walk too, she decided. She thought of calling to check in first. She imagined Larry’s voice, his Southern drawl. He would snap his jaw and ask when she was going to be back. He would say “your daughter” as if Jenny wasn’t his.

            Not yet. She pulled on a jacket. When she and Larry were married, she used to go on hikes every weekend. Sometimes she convinced him to come, but she was just as happy walking alone, with her backpack and the reassurance of the earth beneath her feet. She lost herself in the cadence of her steps. But then Larry started to resent her for her time away, and the long walks faded into afternoons before the TV.

 

            She took her time easing into the trail beneath a silent ski lift. The sky looked like a watercolor painting, shallow clouds and pale blue. Wild flowers bloomed from the weeds, and the air was full of song, the rustling of leaves, insects, birds’ wings. She listened to the gravel beneath her feet. Her legs began to ache, but the racketing thoughts in her head started to quiet.

            It was dark by the time Beth got back. Lois’s dog was curled on the floor in the library. He perked up his head when she came in. Larry insisted that they get a dog, once, a spotted pitbull who made her afraid. The dog growled and showed her teeth. She told Larry to get rid of the dog. It was the first major rip in their pretense of happiness. She remembered looking at the dog before Larry took it to the shelter. The dog began to whine, her tail wagging furtively. Slowly, Beth touched her head. Maybe Beth’s affection was what she wanted all along.

 

            Lois’s library was full of books on theology and spirituality. Beth pulled out a thick book at random from the novel section and brought it back to the cabin. It was a collection of short stories about anonymous small towns, and one began with a long description of cornfields. It tired her. All the grace she felt on her walk was sapping away. The night grew cold.

 

            Larry left her for a younger woman from Ecuador. Her name was Adrianna, and he was enchanted by her accent, her Asiatic eyes. For a long time he pretended it was just a friendship-he even invited the woman to dinner at their house. Beth had felt something clot inside of her, some premonition. The woman was overly sweet, touching the turquoise pendant of Beth’s necklace, admiring the apartment, though it was cramped and unremarkable.

            Adrianna left Ecuador to get away from a malicious ex-boyfriend, she said. She had family in Brooklyn who helped her get her visa. When Larry was in the bathroom, she looked at Beth, a hard, frank stare. Beth’s smile was stuck on her face. She could see everything Adrianna saw: a weak and aging woman. No competition. Dinner was delicious, Adrianna said. Muy rico.

           

            She’ll leave you as soon as she gets her papers, Beth told Larry. Somehow she ended up looking the villain. Adrianna cried on command, seeking asylum in Larry’s arms. Larry stroked her hair and shoulders, treating her as he might a wounded bird.

            Maybe Beth’s biggest mistake had been not to admit her defeat. The more she fought the more desperate she seemed. Jenny went to the wedding, but Beth wasn’t invited. She spent the day shopping and bought red lipstick from Christian Dior. She remembered the saleswoman, thin and Middle Eastern, with thick, perfect eyebrows and a haughty voice. She looked at herself in the mirror when she got home. She saw someone she would not have wanted to know. 

           

            When Jenny was young, she had gone through a phase, dyeing the tip of her hair electric blue. She and Beth fought often, small grievances turned into shouting matches that left her in tears. She forbid Jenny to come home late and confiscated her car keys. Jenny cursed her, raising her voice so that Beth heard from the other room. My mother, the queen cunt, Jenny said. Beth sat very straight in the living room, gripping the edge of the table.

       One night, Jenny didn’t come home. Beth called and called and called again. The phone went to voicemail. She waited in the living room, with the TV on the shopping network. She began to cry, until it was morning and the red light of dawn spread across the sky. A small collection of crumpled tissues had grown on the coffee table. A car pulled to a stop across the street, and then she heard her daughter, laughing, the bright, silver laughter of someone with life on her side.

 

            They never had a grand reconciliation, but slowly, Jenny grew up. She gave Beth a tight hug when she went to college, and whispered “I love you.” Jenny fell into the pieces of a perfect life. She worked for an advertising agency in Manhattan and had a blue-eyed boyfriend who went to Princeton. They talked of getting married.

            Then, one day, she called, her voice tottering and so very small. I’m sorry, she said. As if the illness was her fault.

 

            Beth fell asleep in the haze of her recollections. She was woken by loud noises outside, and she clutched the covers, imagining gunshots. The loud bangs went on, but no one opened the door.

            Fireworks, she realized. She pulled on her coat and stepped out, barefoot. The darkness frightened her and pulled her at once. She felt for the table, the front door. The ground was damp and very cold. Another bang. Orange light splashed the sky above the thicket of trees. It was a beautiful sight. 

 

            Beth sat in the veranda the next morning, watching a dragonfly with blue tipped wings. She saw the man with the flowers walk past. Some sudden impulse made her get up and follow him. He went up the steps to the yoga room and closed the door. He took off his shoes and his socks and stretched his arms overhead. His body was graceful, timeless. Beth watched, mesmerized.

He saw her when he came out, his surprise lasting only for a moment. Then he smiled and motioned towards the house. They walked back together, side by side, and ate in a silence that felt like companionship. That night she dreamt the man with the flowers was teaching her yoga. He realigned the curve of her back with a firm hand. Her skin tingled from his touch. Outside, the birds were singing.  

 

            One day, Beth would have to make a decision about Jenny. For now, though, she clung on to hope. She used to believe in God. She used to pray. When she was growing up, her mother brought her to church every Sunday. Her mother was a plump woman who never raised her voice. She died in a car accident when Beth was 23. Beth remembered waiting for her in a restaurant, blaming her for being late. She didn’t cry until the funeral, the eulogy. Then the depth of her loss hit her and she fell to her knees.

            After the disasters of her life Beth felt her faith dry. She couldn’t believe a God that would take away both her mother and her child.

 

            On the last day, she woke up before dawn and went walking. She stepped lightly on the grass, trembling with dew. She measured her steps to the rhythm of her breaths.

            She stopped when she noticed a rustling pine tree. A porcupine emerged from the leaves, twitching its snout. It was an extraordinarily odd looking thing, misplaced spikes and beady eyes. It looked at Beth and Beth stared back.

            She walked back to the house with a handful of flowers, violet and pink. She would add them to the kitchen cup before she packed. She thought again of the strange animal, how its small, dark eyes gleamed with intelligence, with something she should have known.

           Maybe, she thought, Larry would call. And when she picked up the phone, it would be Jenny’s voice.  Hi, mom, Jenny would say, I’ve been asleep for too long.


         

Laura Yan's short fiction has previously been published in The Newer York and Lonewolf Magazine. 



 


I went to a silent retreat on a whim. I had no spirtual leanings and no motive to get away--I simply wanted to try something new. Mostly, I drank tea and went for walks and watched the dragonflies. And, I studied the other people who came to the retreat. In particular, an unpleasant, middle-aged woman, her face full of angry defeat. The woman who ran the center told me that she came every year and that she had a hard life. I thought a lot about her after I left. This story came from the details of my stay and the story I imagined for her. I like to think that, for the real woman who inspired this story, in those few days, she too found moments of beauty, and peace. 




 





  


Copyright 2009