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by Kate Maruyama
Christine set the alarm for 4:30 a.m. on the day before Christmas Eve, 1961. She knew nothing could wake Chuck on a Saturday, but she fed him macaroni and cheese and wine the night before just in case. Not red wine, that gave him headaches. White. When Chuck drank, he always lit up bright red. He was a sagging, beardless version of Santa Claus when he finally stumbled off to bed.
She had been working on the cards to the children for a few weeks now. First in a notebook in her night table drawer. She thought really hard about each note. A few ideas that didn't sound right, she scribbled out. A few she added. When she thought they were ready, that she had said the most important things she needed to impart, she wrote each note onto a card. They were her grandmother's cards from the 1940s. She had been saving them because they were too nice to write on, just as her grandmother had saved them for the same reason. Small and rectangular, a spray of pine needles in one corner and a simple candle embossed with a golden flame. It was the kind of card they didn’t make anymore, but there'd be no point in saving them now.
To Sadie, 16, she wrote, "I love you. Be kind to your baby brother, he's going to grow up into a great guy. And remember—a boy will only go as far as you let him. Love, Mom."
To James, 14, she wrote, "I love you. Be patient with your father, he loves you so. Treat every girl like you would your sister. Love, Mom."
Charles, 18, was the hardest. She saved writing his until the middle of the morning, when the children were at school, Chuck was at work and there was no chance of interruption. In case she cried. So she'd have time to recover before she saw anyone. "You were the first. Remember that. I loved when we used to sit and paint. I'm sorry things got hard. Remember, there is nothing you can't do in this world. I love you my little man grown big. Mom." Charles's was the only card she put in a sealed envelope. She had punched a hole in the corner of each and strung a ribbon through them the day before so that she could attach them to the presents more easily.
She woke up two minutes before the alarm went off. She turned it off, eased her covers back and slipped out of bed. Despite the cold, she didn't put on her slippers, for fear they would make noise. She pulled open the door and slipped through, looking back at the sleeping form of her husband. His shoulders were stacked sideways, rising and falling in the cool, blurry light of the streetlamp shining through the rain-rippled window. She could have picked a nicer morning for it, but here she was.
The night before, she had put her clothes for this morning in the guest bedroom. Now she cautiously avoided the squeakiest board in the hallway and slipped into the room, closing the door gently behind her. She slipped out of her robe and put on her stockings, her girdle and her slip. She could still fit in her pale green serge suit, but only with some work. The last button was a squeeze. She put on her brand new pink neoprene coat. It was amazing what they could do with fabrics these days. It was thickly woven and looked like wool, but was smoother when you touched it, made of some petrochemical substance that could keep the wind out better than wool. It was a brilliant pink, a Jackie Kennedy sort of pink with a matching pillbox hat. Christine loved this coat, and bought pink alligator pumps and a matching purse to go with. She put on her coat and slipped the cards out of the drawer of a side table where she'd stashed them two days before. She carried her shoes and handbag downstairs.
The Christmas tree was still lit from the night before. Chuck had been too drunk, and she had been too preoccupied to turn it off. She was grateful now for the light it shed. She easily found the gifts and tied a card to each. A new dress from Rhodes for Sadie. A man-sized baseball glove for James. And for Charles, her journals. From before the war ended. From before Chuck stopped speaking to her. From before her life moved into a place she couldn't find herself in, or find her way out of.
She slipped out the kitchen door, so she wouldn't have to deal with the squeak from the front storm door hinge. The night before, she’d made up an excuse to leave her car in the driveway, put Chuck's in the garage: early Christmas errand, cream for the pie.
Everything was making extra noise this morning. The rain smattered on the car and bubbled down into the storm drain, the leafless tree branches clattered with a sudden gust of wind. Her breath rushed in her ears, her pink pumps scraped on the sidewalk. The shoes were completely wrong for the season, but that hadn't been part of her wardrobe calculations. Galoshes wouldn't be suitable. And in her pink neoprene coat with matching pumps and purse, damned if she wasn’t put together.
The first Vashon ferry ran at 5:30 that morning. The man in the ticket booth took her fare and looked her over. "Where you going, looking so pretty on a day like this?"
She smiled, nicely, putting her hand to her hair under her hat. "Oh, thank you. Nowhere special. But thank you." She pulled up to the waiting lanes and found she was first in line because of the holiday.
Christine had met Chuck in 1940. There was a dance at the church and that man could cut a rug. He looked so handsome, green eyed and flushed in his brown suit and white shirt. The black tie, the well-cut hair and broad shoulders. His smile made him look like someone who would take care of you. They exchanged a few pleasantries about the weather, fox-trotted to "Little Brown Jug" and it was agreed that he would meet her at the dance at the community center the following week. So their relationship progressed from dance to dance, small talk, a quick kiss in the back hall by the ladies' room, a grope in the car. When the location of their dates left the dance hall for local restaurants, Chuck made decisions for her: when they would meet, where they would go, what they would order. Having practically raised her sisters since her mother died, Christine decided that it felt good to be taken care of. Someone else could make the decisions for a while.
They were married shortly thereafter. She had Charles and Sadie during the war. James came soon after. Chuck went off to serve in the Officers' Corps in Biloxi, pushing boots. It seemed like every time he came home on leave, Christine would come down pregnant. She liked those years, rambling around with the children, taking care of the local widows, starting women's groups. She and the girls pooled their babysitting hours and she became a part-time secretary at Boeing.
Each day stretched before her with choices and purpose and reason. From planting victory gardens, to figuring out what meal to cook from the rations allowed, to organizing the children in her charge for that day. When it was her day to babysit, she and seven children (two families and her own two) would sing, play, bake cookies, and, best of all, paint. She lined up miniature easels made from wood scraps from Boeing in the back yard. She put out tempera paints in used tin cans. The rule at Christine's house was there were no limits on the amount of paint you could use.
When she was at work, she was in charge of her boss's office, his comings and goings and meetings. Boeing was designing planes for the war and the control of information within the plant was imperative. Christine knew she was working for a higher cause.
She didn't know until Chuck came home for good in 1945, that what she'd really enjoyed about those years was freedom.
Chuck brought his officer’s military precision home with him. She thought at first that he was having trouble adjusting to the post-war period. Or that she was having trouble adjusting to someone else helping run the house. They were little things at first, particularities about where to leave his shirts, how to put away the dishes. She was understanding when he made her quit her job to better tend to things around the homestead. She was in the same boat as her girlfriends from Boeing. Used to riveting planes and fixing their own cars, they were sent back to the trenches of hand-washed laundry, cooking and cleaning. Days ran one into the other with no company but their children.
She kept her Tuesday night women's bowling team and there they could express their frustration together. They laughed about old times in the work force, bowled, talked a little about their husbands, sighed wistfully and went home to their respective lives.
Chuck's demands about shirts soon became demands about dinner, about how she spoke to the children. She swallowed her objections and forged forward. He had demands in the bedroom about which he no longer consulted her. There was a permission Chuck used to seek which he no longer felt necessary. Christine didn't think it was her place to fight it, but she missed the asking.
Life had called upon her and Christine figured she might as well rise to the occasion. Poor Betty Cooper's husband had been at Guadalcanal and some days couldn't leave the house for his shaking. She could be considerate, too.
But Chuck had only been as far as Biloxi.
He was good to the children. Christine stopped going to bowling nights because of Chuck's gruff sighs when she asked him if he would look after the children. She made one excuse and another with the girls until they just stopped asking. She lost that easy confidence found in community. Chuck seemed to know the most about the War, the Nazis, and now the Communists. His opinion on the price of food was penultimate, as were his opinions of the house, the meals, the children, the president and the latest automobile.
By the time James went off to kindergarten, Christine realized that she had pleased and worked and changed and catered to Chuck’s needs so much she had erased herself. She felt like she should fight back somehow before she disappeared entirely, but she no longer had the strength or dialogue with which to do it.
Nine years passed in this way. As the children grew into teenagers, with their own friends and their own schedules, Christine didn't know if she missed their needing her or if she was relieved that they were old enough to take care of themselves. Her responsibility for their moment-to-moment happiness had dissipated. It felt like a weight lifted. But in its place, unease had settled.
Then she got pregnant. She had loved carrying her three children, the feeling that she was doing something useful, purposeful in the world. But this pregnancy felt different from its beginning. At 38, she was so much older. She was sick not only in the morning, but all day and into the evening. She had a daily, hour-to-hour alarmingly ground-dropping sense of fear and dread that would overtake her so swiftly at times that she would have to sit down suddenly to gather herself. Whatever she did to ward it off, baking, cleaning, sewing, a sense of despair grew in her, a loudening rhythmic thud.
She was getting her courage together to tell Chuck about the pregnancy, when he made a crack about the "eyetalian" family down the street and their five kids. Something racist and then something about old ladies and shoes. Unable to face his disapproval, Christine claimed that she was ill in those weeks leading up to Christmas and took to her bed. The children didn't seem to mind. They'd check in on her and get their own dinner. She listened to the voices of her family at dinnertime in the kitchen below, talking, sometimes laughing.
One day, feeling a little better, Christine went out Christmas shopping. She picked up the dress and the baseball mitt. She stopped in front of the local church to make sure she hadn't left her car keys at the store. As she fished in her pocketbook, she looked up to see the manger scene out front on the brown, dead grass. There was straw strewn inside a rough wooden stable, a plaster Mary and Joseph, one shepherd, a sheep and a donkey. It was a quiet street, and the hollow sound of the city echoed from a few blocks away, in another dimension. The manger lay empty, waiting for baby Jesus. It was a plaster manger, with fake molded straw painted on the sides. The center was a hollowed out dirty white that would later be covered with the baby and, presumably, real straw. But now, dully reflected the cold blue winter air, the gray-white baby-shaped pit revealed that the entire scene was a fraud. The plaster rippled where it had been poured and painted and where, year after year, it had gathered the city grime.
The vacant cavity hit her with a wave of nausea and emptiness that she hadn't felt before. There was no paint allowed there, no hay, no color, no curtains, no job, no opinions, no friends and no baby.
This child couldn't happen. The knowledge filled her with shame and dread. She wasn't fit for her family. She had become a void, a negative, a dark space that would need to remove itself.
Seattle was usually cold, but this unusually seeping bone-chilling irrecoverable cold had started in December of that year. November had been bleak, rain almost every day. But today's rain held that nose-pinching cold. Christine knew it would turn to ice and then probably snow by that night.
She would ditch the car in Port Angeles. She didn't want to hold people up by leaving an untended car on the ferry. Despite the warmth of her coat, the cold pricked her nose and her eyes stung. She breathed deeply, trying to focus. She was safely out of the house and on schedule.
The ferry was on time, the Klickitat. This was the same ferry she and the kids had ridden to pick strawberries on Whidbey Island last summer. A beautiful day, it should have been full of joy, but as she watched her beautiful girl and handsome boys stoop to pick up strawberries, laughter and freedom in their eyes, she knew that she was only watching life these days. She had put herself away with the paints years before.
The smell of exhaust filled the air and the swiftly approaching ferry churned its engines backwards to slow its advance. The water swirled and roared and as the boat docked, it squeaked against the pylons. A loud squeak one way, then another. Christine pulled at her gloves to straighten them, clicked shut her purse, left open from the ticket purchase. She patted her hair, straightened her hat and drove onto the ferry. There were only a few people getting onboard with her and two trucks. Early morning workers. Hell of a commute.
Christine parked her car and walked up the stairs to the upper deck, through the warmth and smell of coffee. The woman at the concession stand said, "Good morning." Christine nodded to her and tried to get away quickly. The woman called after her, "Merry Christmas!" But Christine didn't want any more human interaction. Or comfort. Or Danish. She stepped out into the cold again. She couldn't do it here. The ferry ride was too short.
Two ferry rides and a short drive later, she drove up the Olympic Peninsula, the highway gently winding and mercifully empty. The sun wasn't up yet, but the sky was turning gray. After her anxiousness over the arrangements, she felt a peace come over her. It verged on elation. She had a plan and each step was going seamlessly.
An hour and a half later the ferry heaved out of Port Angeles. This was the route to Victoria. It was a long ride, and sleepier than the Puget Sound ferries. Christine watched from the upper deck as the bustle and tension of the shorter rides dissipated. After Friday Harbor, the crew relaxed, left the decks. Christine waited for the last of the passengers to leave their cars, or to relax into the rhythm of the ride. She clutched her purse, her hands numb from standing outside, and walked back through the main cabin, through a metal door and down the narrow stairwell, her pumps clanking on the metal staircase. The engines had calmed from their starting-up churns, the sounds of the seagulls had thinned and she was alone, behind the chain, looking out as they passed Orcas island and into the open Pacific. It was cold here. She would sink. No one would have to deal with a body.
She looked behind her and saw a deckhand popping into a doorway. Now was the time. As she stepped over the chain, she caught a glimpse of her shoes. Those beautiful pink alligator shoes. She didn't want to lose her footing. She slipped them off and her stockinged foot stung with cold as it touched the metal deck. She put her purse down next to her shoes. Maybe someone would find them useful. Her personal information in the purse would allow the authorities to alert her family, so they wouldn't have to waste time searching for her. She wouldn't want them to think she'd run off on them. She said a prayer for God to take care of her children and she jumped.
Over and over she had imagined how it would go. The cold waves would close over her head, the intense cold would hit her and then she would begin to feel nothingness around her feet, which would spread to the rest of her body. Or, if she were lucky, she would fall unconscious instantly. She would fall beneath the waves, among the whales and, as the air left her lungs she would sink, gently, quietly silently to the bottom. Drowning was supposed to be very hard, but the cold was meant to speed the process.
She felt the water later than she thought she would. Right after she jumped, she heard someone say, "Wait." She had imagined going feet first, but she somehow swiveled in the air and hit the water with her back. It hurt. She realized that she was the one who had spoken.
The waves would close over her head. She waited for it. She went under, but only for a moment. Her head came up. She wasn't sinking. The boat was getting farther away and her hands and legs burned with the cold. Sharp pain started in her ankles and toes, but she wasn't sinking. Her coat. Her neoprene coat. It was acting like some sort of stylish pink flotation device. She had to get it off.
Cursing, she tried to bring her hands in to feel for her buttons. She grasped at one, but it bit her finger with the pain of contact. She tried harder, but she couldn't get purchase. The current had turned her back on the boat, which was by now, surely, out of site. She was staring at the shore of Orcas island. The sun was now up and bright and the world was unnaturally sharp and clear. The tall forest of pine trees on the shore of Orcas lined the cliffs. Some trees clung precariously, their roots and limbs reaching outward over the beach to where their fallen comrades lay, washed ashore from a passing logging boat. The sky was a perfect cerulean blue—Christine's favorite color in the paint box, that never got quite dark enough when she applied it to paper. As a child she was scolded for squirting an entire tube of watercolor onto one painting, but she had been working toward that blue sky.
From the ferry, the ocean past Orcas had looked so calm, but, bobbing in these two-foot waves and being pulled by the current, she knew it wasn't. Despite the violence of the motion, the water was so quiet, its only sound wet and rippling. The pain in her hands was subsiding. She started feeling sleepy. It may not be how she planned it, but surely she was giving in to hypothermia. She couldn't do much about the floating, but the effect would be the same.
She would sleep, it would be comfortable. Chuck would take care of the kids. Charles was going to college in the fall and James and Sadie could already take care of themselves. All of the worry and stress began to leave her and she felt at peace with wherever she was going. She felt happier than she'd been in awhile. As happy as after that first day of work at the plant. She should have known then, life was better, less complicated without Chuck. She thought his life would be better, less complicated, without her. Certainly the kids' lives. She began to feel dizzy and closed her eyes, imagining swinging high under a maple tree. Her father had made her a wooden swing and when he hung it from their front tree she marveled at how such a simple thing could evoke such wonder. She swung forward and back, forward and back and there was a rumble. She thought not with a bang but a rumble…
All went black.
Everything hurt. She opened her eyes. Her head pulsated with a rhythmic thud, her skin burned, her feet had an internal ache like her bones were on fire. She found herself wrapped in a blanket in the interior of the ferry, right by the concession stand. Someone was trying to get her to drink some coffee. It spilled on her chin where it burned. She turned her head away. The first thing she felt was embarrassment. Someone had taken off her coat, she was down to her underthings and one of the deck hands was barking orders to a cluster of people who milled around her looking not worried, but afraid.
The deck hand had a broad, craggy face. The left side of his face was scarred, probably from the war. His skin was ruddy, flushed, making the rippled scar shine white. Maybe it was shrapnel. Or some sort of burn. It burns.
He said, "You gave us quite a scare there, lady. If we hadn'ta found your purse and your shoes, well … I don't want to think what woulda happened."
She said, "I'm sorry." Her voice came out hollow and echoey. It didn't sound like hers.
A female voice joined his, "Oh my gawd, what a scare. Thank God we found your purse. And your shoes." Christine looked over to see the lady from the concession stand watching her, worried. Her lipstick was a terrible color pink. Like bubblegum. She had too much on and her lips were pursed with concern. Christine thought how she could take this woman under her wing, show her the proper way to apply lipstick. Blackness again.
When Christine came to, the pain was less. She could tell by the smells before she opened her eyes that she was in a hospital. The pain in her limbs had subsided, but there was a new pain in her abdomen. Sharp cramping and a dull ache. She knew she was miscarrying, or she already had. She turned to her side to curl up but found that her wrists were held fast by something. She focused and saw that she was in restraints.
She saw Chuck sitting in the chair by the window. His face was furrowed, his hand pulling on his ear. When he saw that she was awake, his expression went from alarm to fear to sheer bafflement to anger.
He waggled his head back and forth. When did his jowls get so loose? His voice sounded hollow, hoarse in the small room. "What the hell, Christine? I mean what the hell?"
She didn't have anything to say to him. She wasn't supposed to be here. If she'd known she was going to be here, she might have had something to say.