That whole summer felt like a dream.
The air hung so thick that you could taste it; trees and dirt and humidity so dense that breathing felt like drowning. I have lived here all my life, and I never knew anything quite like it. Everything was drenched in shades of green: the trees standing sentinel in the encroaching woods, the sky with its sickly hurricane tinge. And the water, calm and still, reflected both.
It was all about waiting, which is something I have never been good at. My husband was away at war, and he wouldn’t be back for several more weeks. I tried to imagine what that would be like. Would he come back whole? Would he have scars? Would the skin around his eyes and forehead show new creases of worry?
This was his second tour, and I remember well how it was the first time he got back.
I remember tracing the lines with my fingers, amazed at the man he’d become. The boy had been stamped out of him. I felt shy and at odds around him, like someone had dropped a stranger off at my doorstep. Love him, care for him, and just ignore that this new man wears the old one’s skin.
Not that loving presented a problem. I got pregnant shortly after he returned.
I very much wanted the child, but hated the process. The backaches, tears for no reason, and morning sickness that lasted all day. My breasts ached when the breeze blew. Some nights I just sat in a warm bath, enjoying the feeling of weightlessness that water gave me. I missed my lean body and the ability to jump up at anytime.
Along with that came other things. The feeling that I’d become part of something more important than just me. I paid attention to small things I had not noticed before—other people’s emotions, sometimes the meaning behind their words. I slipped easily into the idea of becoming a plural being, and no longer singular.
Comforting, I suppose, because without my husband there, I felt very much alone.
Our house is way out by the river. No one even comes up here unless they come to fish. I always liked that. When he proposed, I remember that he said we could “live together up on the lake, Vivian, and we can have our lives without being bothered by anyone else.”
I knew that I loved him, but those words sealed it for me.
I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but after my husband’s second deployment, Lola started showing up at my doorstep.
Lola is John’s mother. She is one of those women that everyone calls Mother. Probably as old as dirt, but with a round brown face that barely showed a wrinkle. She was active, a spry little thing: church mother, babysitter, unapologetic counselor, aggressively friendly, yet coolly dismissive. Apparently John was not the apple that fell from the tree, but the one that was picked up and thrown into another field entirely.
Lola would come in and walk through the house, quietly inspecting as she did. I would make a pot of tea and ask how things were going for her. Talk always slid back towards the baby, and John, and how it didn’t look like I was eating right. There were times when she brought me casseroles and chicken, and once, a whole pot of greens. I accepted all but kindly reminded her that I was having a baby, not a whale.
This made her laugh. I was too skinny.
Which made me laugh as well.
“You must take care of yourself,” she sobered me with a hand on my shoulder. “This is a very tenuous time. You must come out of it the right way.” There was a glimmer in her eye. Something that I did not understand.
She meant well, I imagined, but I didn’t like her. I wanted space. And I didn’t want to be measured. No matter how Lola did the math, I was missing something.
I laid down one afternoon after one of Lola’s impromptu visits. That was the first time that I remember having the dream.
Is there something wrong about not dreaming of your lover?
Before we married, I never dreamed about making love with John. Maybe back then, there was no need. We were always together. There had been men before John, for me, but nothing serious. He was really the first man I ever ached for, who made me crave him. The deepest of all my experiences came from his hands, his body, and being in his arms.
So that afternoon I dreamed of him, and my heart began to race.
He was stood at the shore of the lake. And he smiled at me. I could feel him watching. He turned and went out into the water until he stood waist deep. The skies darkened overhead.
“There’s a storm coming.” I told him. “ We should go inside.”
“The water is warm,” he said, ignoring my discomfort. “Come on.” His voice dropped lower, teasing. “Come in with me.”
He held out a hand to me.
Something changed. The expression. He was serious. I felt a warm drop of rain hit my eyelid. The wind picked my hair up and blew it around.
“Vivian. Baby.” he said.
I woke in a sweat.
It was raining outside, a flurry of warm rain that would soon expire. The fan rotated above the bed, circulating the hot air like a dog chasing its own tail. The clock by my bed showed that two hours had passed since I laid down. Good, I thought. Lola had made it home before the rain.
I turned on the television, and the weatherman was complaining about a surprise storm sweeping up the coast. It had already landed in Greenville, and was moving fast. No kidding, I thought dryly. The picture faded in and out, expanding and contracting for a moment before the screen went black.
The lights went out, with a sickening pop.
It was still light enough outside that I could see, but that wouldn’t to last long. The storm brought twilight with it, pushing out the last traces of sun.
I kept a transistor radio on top the refrigerator. After fumbling with a pack of batteries I was able to load it and get it working.
I wanted the noise, to hear someone’s voice, to not feel so alone. The tinge of panic in the weatherman’s voice was catching.
Hurricanes were not uncommon during that time of year. But the announcer would not admit that it was a hurricane.
“Come on, you coward,” I said to the radio. “Go ahead and say how bad it really is.”
My voice echoed loudly through the emptiness.
More than anything, I didn’t like the idea of going down into the dark basement by myself—exactly what I’d have to do if they forecasted gale force winds.
I gathered all the candles I could find and brought them downstairs with me. Sitting in the kitchen, I lit all the candles and lined them up on the countertop. I kept the radio on the table in front of me. They had paused for a moment in their storm coverage to talk about local news, and I felt my mind begin to drift.
And then, it happened.
A pain ripped through me, like a knife cutting through the core of my body. I couldn’t scream. My eyes filled with tears. I clutched my middle. Falling from the chair, the cold linoleum met my body. I reached my hand out, and felt something.
I saw a black shoe.
“Vivian,” John said, his voice filled with concern. He bent down and touched my shoulders.
The next pain came like a wave, and the world went black.
The rest, I remember in flashes—because of the pain, and because I shut my eyes against it.
John picked me up and carried me into our room. I was crying. I remember screaming at him, but I don’t know what I said. His face was a calm mask, but I saw the fear in his eyes.
He told me I would be alright.
He said the baby wasn’t coming just yet.
“How do you know?” I spat angrily.
I felt the bed move as he stretched out beside me.
“I said, he’s not coming yet,” he replied firmly. “It’s okay. I’m here.”
I could hear the rain outside. Clutching his hand, I sighed. It felt like the first breath I’d had in minutes, like a swimmer emerging after having nearly drowned.
“Rest,” John said. “I’m home now.”
When I woke again, the pain had subsided. I felt pressure, but not the searing pain I had before. Uncomfortable, but bearable. I thought maybe it was a dream, but John still lay beside me.
It was his presence that roused me first. The sweet smell of soap mixed with his aftershave, the warm saltiness of his skin. This was my man. He turned towards me and I smiled.
“How did you get home early?” I asked. “ The storm’s coming…”
“I have a very pregnant wife. They took pity and let me come home early.”
“I thought I was going to deliver here all by myself,” I said, tears springing into my eyes. “I have to get to a hospital.”
Something moved in those dark eyes of his. “Viv. The roads are washed out. We’re going to have to ride this out.”
“How…?” questions were swirling through my head.
“I called your doctor. He thinks you’re having false labor.”
“Well… How?” I wanted to know how on earth he had been able to call anyone when the lights were still out. Then again, maybe he’d used his cell.
“The contractions are too far apart. You were asleep for almost thirty minutes.”
“One man, asking another man about my contractions,” I said. “That’s just great.”
“I am a trained medic. I can handle it.”
“Well, I might not be able to. I need drugs.”
I wanted to turn on my side, but was afraid that any shift might cause another surge of pain.
John seemed to know. He gently turned my body so that I was facing the wall. He moved close, so that my back was against his chest. “You’ll be just fine,” he said.
“No I’m not. I hate you.”
This made him chuckle, which only made me more angry. His voice was soft, his breath warm in my ear. “Yeah right. I know better.”
I wasn’t feeling contractions anymore, but I was afraid. He rubbed my back, and for a long time we were both silent.
The wind started to roar outside.
John’s lips were against my ear when he spoke again. “Remember when we were kids, and we used to hide under Mama’s stairs? All the times we’d make out in the closet?”
Oh, I did remember. His scent and his body pushed up against me in the darkness. His breath hot against my face, and his hands moving across my body. I lowered my voice to a whisper. “What made you bring that up?”
“Cause we’re in the dark,” he said.
There was a clap of thunder . When lightning struck, everything looked silver.
John put his hand against my stomach. His face was shadowy in that light, a fine outline against the darkness.
Maybe it was mention of Lola’s name that made her appear in my dream.
We stood at the edge of the lake together. The sky was a deep, hot green, and the water reflected that color back. I smelled the coming of the storm in the air: dust, water, heat, ozone.
“Did you know,” Lola said, “that when John was a little boy, I used to sing him a lullaby?”
I looked at her, and stumbled backwards. Her eyes had gone completely green, like the water, only white where clouds moved.
“Water,” she said, “is life.”
The sound of the shingles coming off the roof awakened me.
I sat up in bed. “John!” I screamed.
Where was he? I stumbled out of the bed and into that hall. He came from the stairway and ran towards me. He tackled me, and shoved me back into a closet. He held me tight, pressing himself so hard against me that it was almost painful. The stubble on his cheek pressed against my face.
“I love you,” he said, “tell Joshua that I love him.”
Those were the last words I heard before the hurricane swallowed everything.
In the hospital, Lola watched over me like a weary ghost.
Her tear-rimmed eyes were filled with emotion. The first thing out of my mouth was to ask about the baby. Joshua had been born one day ago, not long after the ambulance brought me to the hospital. He was well and healthy, seven pounds, three ounces. The nurses would bring him around now that I was awake, so that I could hold him.
One of my arms was broken, and with all the pain and the trauma, the doctors had decided to sedate me after the baby was delivered.
Once I was assured that Joshua was fine, then there was only one other question.
Only one other grief could cause Lola so much pain.
I knew the answer, somewhere inside myself. I felt the moment that John’s body was ripped away from me. I’d heard snatches of conversation between the nurses as I dived in and out of consciousness. Our house had been destroyed. They said that all that remained was a broken fireplace. And the closet where I’d ridden out the storm.
My eyes filled with tears as I asked, “Where is my husband?”
She barely could say the words. It seemed to take her breath out of her. I had never before felt so sorry for her. What she said shocked me.
Two men had come to the hospital yesterday, dressed in formal uniforms. When she saw them, she knew their intent. One of the men was a commander, and he repeatedly apologized that it had taken so long for them to arrive with word about John.
With the storm, and all the chaos that followed, no one had been able to reach to family with the sad news..
John had been killed overseas five days before his son was born.
Copyright 2010 Lori Titus