Fear of Drowning by Trudy Carpenter
During the divorce Sarah moves back home with her mother, who insists that she pay rent and do all the cooking. The first night Sarah fixes meat loaf with catsup, mashed potatoes, succotash, and frosted brownies, all her mother’s favorites. The women eat in silence in front of the 6:30 national news. Sarah’s mother looks down at her empty plate and whispers, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.”
Sarah’s formal wedding is documented in a large white plastic album. Five bridesmaids in pink taffeta, his mother elegant in gray satin, her mother fussy in yellow ruffles, Sarah solemn in a long white gown laced tightly with stays, her mother’s graduated pearl necklace. The reception photos show white linen tablecloths and country club waitresses in uniform. Sarah walked down the aisle on her uncle’s arm, and he whispered, “Your father would have been proud of you.” She was twenty-three and didn’t know what else to do with herself.
Her new husband Tom started his own realty company, and Sarah submerged herself in his career. She pressed his dark suits and bought his striped ties, entertained his colleagues and clients every Friday night with white wine and cocktails. She made trays of tiny pastry hors d’ouvres and hours of small talk. Sometimes after a party, her mouth felt frozen. She thought she might use her M.A. to teach, but Tom wanted her to stay home. Her mother said, “When you have children, you’ll have plenty to keep you busy.”
Sarah produced one child. Tom cut the cord himself and made the nurse take a picture of him holding his new daughter, named Lily for his mother. That was one of the five framed pictures of his daughter he kept on his large cherry desk at the office, lined up chronologically and turned sideways for his clients to see. Sarah wondered if the photos helped him connect with and soften buyers, made them want more for their own children, bigger houses in better neighborhoods.
Everything in Tom’s world revolved around his growing daughter, and she adored him. He called Lily “my girl” and bragged about her accomplishments—her first staggering steps toward his open arms, her first complete sentence (“daddy come home”), 8th grade graduation in shiny blue cap and gown, her starter tennis trophy. From childhood, whenever Lily needed comfort, she ran to her father, not Sarah. Sarah fetched the hydrogen peroxide, the cough syrup, the band aids, but Tom administered them and provided the soft soothing. Sarah stood by and listened to their soft voices, echoing faintly as though she heard them from under water.
During her high school years, Lily and Tom played tennis at the club three nights a week, and she competed in matches most weekends. Sarah attended all Lily’s matches and cheered her on, though she didn’t understand much more than how to keep score. She took her cues from Tom and congratulated Sarah on an ace, her square hits, her clean placement. Lily and her father worked for hours on her backhand. During the long hours they followed the pro tour on television every year, Sarah retreated to her bedroom to read novels recommended by her book club.
Sarah sometimes felt like her daughter’s legal guardian, caring but not related. Lily had the same slender flexibility, curly black hair, and sharp edge of competition as her father, none of Sarah’s roundness or beveled edges. Sarah drove her to piano lessons, to the orthodontist, to the family doctor, to school play rehearsals, to her weekly after-school tennis lessons. Sarah’s calendar squares were full of Lily’s life. The destinations changed, but the routine didn’t—backing the car out, waiting for Lily to slam the passenger door, reminding her to turn down the radio, dropping her off, waiting in outer offices with outdated copies of Reader’s Digest or on metal bleachers with a mystery novel.
But no amount of shared time resulted in connection. Lily rolled her eyes when Sarah talked, raised the pitch of her voice, shrugged her shoulders, shut her bedroom door. Sarah felt her daughter’s disapproval and spent more time away from home, taking night classes in flower arranging and beginning French, volunteering more afternoons at the historical museum, learning to play bridge at the country club.
When her daughter was away at summer tennis camp, Sarah floated for hours in their backyard pool on an orange plastic raft. She closed her eyes and felt herself drifting. Sometimes she panicked, maybe startling from a dip into sleep, and paddled hard to the safety of the concrete edge. Sometimes the humid Michigan air felt as thick as the water, so she hurried into the cool kitchen for a gin and tonic.
Then Sarah met Bill at the country club. He had just joined Tom’s realty company, and he and his wife were invited into the club. When Bill stepped into the heated pool near Sarah, she sensed an electric current. Something about floating in the water with him created an intimacy, loosened and freed her. They started to talk when they met, to watch for each other. They started with coffee and holding hands across the table in a restaurant outside of Lansing.
He rented them a double room one afternoon at the Motel Six, where rooms were available by the hour. He traced his index finger down her long bare back, then around her mouth. He moved slowly, deliberately, confidently. Briefly, she felt rescued, special. He buoyed her spirits, and she bought two short skirts at Macy’s and had her hair shaped and highlighted. Tom didn’t notice, but Lily was suspicious, hard. “What’s up with you?”
Six weeks later, Bill’s wife spotted them at a Starbucks, not holding hands, not reading romantic poetry, not touching knees under the table, just talking. But she knew. She confronted the two right then. She hissed at Sarah, “This isn’t the first time, you know,” and threatened Bill. She’d make sure his sons knew the truth about him. They would learn to hate him. She promised him that. He believed her and knocked Sarah out of his life. No tender goodbye, just one sharp hit and he slid safely home.
She called Tom at the realty office on her cell phone.
Tom imploded in fury and ordered Sarah to get out of his house. When he told Lily about her mother’s affair, the girl stomped into the kitchen white and rigid with anger. “How could you? Don’t you ever think about anyone but yourself?” In that moment, Sarah knew she was cut off from her daughter forever, and she was shocked at the surge of relief.
She stood in the kitchen after Lily left the house with Tom and stared out the window above the sink. The late spring snow was almost gone, and bunches of early daffodils were blooming in the back yard, small bouquets from the earth. She remembered the formal floral arrangements crowding the casket at her father’s funeral.
She was fourteen when he died. She watched his thinning face, thinning arms, thinning legs. It was spring then too, and he seemed to be melting with the snow. She knew he was going, but her mother’s voice kept chirping, insisting that he was getting better, that nothing was really wrong, never calling his illness by a name. For two months, Sarah returned from school each day to the smells of bleach and vomit. Her mother told her, “Stay in your room and try to keep out of the way.”
She remembers the echo in long hospital halls, the pale curtains around his bed, the eerie beeping of machines. After it was over, her mother turned and walked out of the room. When Sarah asked, “Can’t we talk about him?” her mother snapped, “Why? He’s gone.”
On a Friday, wearing lipstick for the first time since the divorce hearing, Sarah meets with the department chair in Communications at Lansing Community College. She convinces him that raising a teenager is almost equivalent to teaching experience, and he assigns her two sections of freshman composition. On his way out the door to an administrative meeting, he calls out to his secretary, “Go ahead and draw up the contracts; those last two sections are finally staffed.” The secretary assigns her an office and gives her paper work to fill out.
Sarah remembers all the papers she filled out for the divorce. She wrote out her plea to keep the house, but in front of both their lawyers, Tom glared at her and said, “Fat chance.” She wanted to paint the dining room purple, grow sunflowers across the back garden, smash the wedding crystal against the faux stone fire place.
Except for Lily’s pink-striped wallpaper, Tom had insisted on a neutral décor in their two-story colonial. He chose tan carpet, tan walls, tan floor tile, tan counter tops. He said, “A house is an investment. We need to think ahead to prospective buyers.” Sarah had always seen the house as blank, and sometimes while she was washing the tan tile, she imagined she was cleaning someone else’s house. But after the divorce it sold in two weeks, just as Tom predicted. He donated some of their furniture to Goodwill and moved the rest into a two-bedroom apartment down by the Grand River. Lily would live with him there until she moved into the dorm at Michigan State.
The first day of her assigned classes, Sarah wakes at 7 a.m. in her narrow childhood bed and watches the bedside clock change its mind again and again. She wonders if she should have taken the library job instead. Maybe she should have held out for more alimony. Maybe she should just rent a room somewhere and cook on a hot plate. Her stomach feels queasy, and she remembers her pregnancy with Lily.
It had taken three years, and Tom was jubilant. He grabbed her, twirled her, called his parents, called her mother. When Sarah took the phone, her mother said, “Well, finally you’ll know how hard it is to be a mother.” Sarah felt like she was drowning.
Today, 44 years later, her mother meets her in the kitchen with a small bowl of cold cereal, holds it out at arm’s length. Sarah doesn’t want it but swallows three bites. Her mother nods, turns, walks back to her bedroom, and shuts the door.
Sarah drives out Oakland and crosses over the crowded one-way bridge at the Grand River toward the college. Traffic lines up three blocks in front of the parking ramp, and she panics. Her first class is at 10:00 a.m., and it is already 9:30. She swerves out of line and drives up a side street. Every space is filled. Four blocks out she parks in the driveway of an abandoned house.
Inside the Arts and Sciences building, she faces three flights of stairs and jammed elevators. She takes each step more slowly, and is sweating by the top landing. She breathes too fast and her vision blurs. She puts her hand out to the wall to steady herself, keep from sinking.
She steps into the classroom, places her course descriptions and textbooks on the desk. She has written her lesson plan on a yellow legal pad. Two girls sit in the back left corner near the window, passing around prom pictures, ignoring her One boy tosses wad after wad of white paper toward the wastebasket, whooping “He shoots; he scores” even when he misses. Trying not to stare at the teacher, one girl in the front row has her textbook and pen laid out, her spiral notebook open. Her face is sensitive and alert.
Sarah steps up to the long white board and picks up the green marker. The students are coming to attention. They want to know who she is. Her face feels hot, and she knows forty eyes are watching her write Sarah Herman, Composition 101 in her best cursive. She hears her mother in the sudden silence behind her and is afraid to turn around. If she closes her eyes, lets go for even a second, she might drown in the cold depths, slip down into the dark.
She focuses on two words she has written on the board. Her own name.
She feels her heart beating and thinks of the twenty other hearts beating inside the room with her, just as Lily’s heart had long ago beat inside her body. Her new students are like her, unfinished, uncertain, hopeful.
They are waiting for her to turn around.
Trudy Carpenter resides in a small green house on a windy shore of Lake Michigan with her husband George and adopted dog Cricket. She has published many short stories and just completed a novel that’s in search of an agent. She insists that writing is a cheaper passion than golf and can be done year-round where she lives.