Last month's prompt invited readers to write a fictional story about a woman who discovers her desire as a mother. In this story, the main character starts at a more basic level: by rediscovering her desire for the marriage itself.
by Lizabeth Bradshaw
"I need youuu!"
The noise pierces the steam, penetrates the moan of the bathroom fan. Annie hears it as soon as she cuts the water and steps out of the shower, hair dripping, stretch marks sagging. The small, disgruntled one begins round two of her plea. In an instant Annie discerns, with a mother's pitch-perfect ear, that this cry is half want and half need. No parts blood or pain. Not even a tablespoon of fear. She has time to put on her robe.
"I need youuu!"
As her daughter pauses for breath, Annie yells "Can't Daddy help you?" No answer.
Clad in the fuzzy red robe that Child #1 picked out for her last Christmas, Annie drips her way downstairs. Child #2 is sitting on the potty. Naked. She has pooped. Annie wipes, washes, and turns back out the door, drying her soapy hands on the mangy robe, when her eyes fall on her husband.
Sitting ten feet away. Reading a magazine and shoveling in a mouthful of cereal.
He wipes too hard.
Paul looks up and says, "What? She didn't want me."
Instantly, resentment rises in Annie, yellow bile in her throat, red mercury in her chest.
Taking #2's hand, Annie runs through Paul's morning transgressions. Slept in while she woke with the kids? Check. Failed to take Child #1 to school as promised? Check. Apparently has time to read The New Yorker while her People magazines grow dusty in the rack? Check.
Who put the kids to bed on her own last night? Who fixed Child #1's eggs just the way she likes them this morning? Who played Doggy Town with #3 before her first cup of coffee, and oh, who made that coffee? Who drove #1 to school in her pajamas and rain boots and long down parka? Check, check, and check.
Child in tow, Annie stomps back upstairs. She holds the long, thick robe away from her feet. She gathers her virtues around her, preening over them, smoothing them like a diaphanous, taffeta skirt.
The red fleece clings uncomfortably to Annie's still wet body, making her feel like a human burp cloth. Beside her, the girl is naked, gleeful. Her body is smooth, sinewy, strong. Her toenails little seashells, her shoulders straight and easy. She skips from step to step, dancing to the beat of youth.
I will not keep score, Annie tells herself.
I will not keep score.
I will not keep score.
But if she did, there'd be no competition. Even if she threw in the towel, crawled into bed, and stayed there for weeks, went on an online bender and maxed out their credit cards with Lego sets, light sabers and American Girls, Danskos and Manolos, Annie has stored up enough mothering credit to carry her until her next birthday. This is the paradox of living with a man like her husband. Call him Peter Pan, or simply a man who has stumbled more than is really polite. All you have to do is stay and forgive . . . and you win. You're the better half, but you can't help but feel like the loser.
At the top of the stairs, Annie directs the little girl into her room to dress. Instead, she collapses happily on the floor, rolling her blanket into a nest and contentedly shoving the corner up her nose.
Annie heads to her room, watching herself in the hall mirror, praying, reflexively, the prayer that is always on her lips.
Change him. Change him. Change him.
But then she stops, closes her eyes, and tries another.
Change me, God. Change me. Oh, change me.
She tries to imagine the gears of anger, the ones perpetually turning in her chest, grinding slowly to a halt.
She enters her bedroom and reaches into the pockets of her robe to empty them, and finds the fortune cookie she'd hastily hidden there last night before her kids saw it and fell apart over a single treat that would not let itself be divided into three equal parts. She unwraps it now and, holding her breath, cracks it open.
"Every day above ground is a good day."
Popping the cookie into her mouth, Annie throws the robe in the hamper and stands up straight. She takes an appraising look at her breasts. Lower, yes, but lump free, unlike her friend Julia's. Suddenly Annie doesn't want to be like the perfume that stays in the bottle too long. She can already feel herself turning sour, separating into oil, resin, and fragrance.
Without hesitation, she reaches into the top dresser drawer, takes out the year-old Hermes scarf her sister had given her last year when she turned 36, and snaps off the tags. So what if they're only going to the grocery store.
Then, she opens the jewelry box on top of the dresser; baby socks, baby books, baby dolls, and all sorts of treasures balance precariously on the lid.
"Mama! Show's over, Mama!!!"
The baby whine of #3 this time. Another emergency.
Annie slams the lid shut and yanks the bedroom door open. But on the other side she finds #2, standing proudly in the hall. In a remarkable act of independence she has not only donned her underpants, but she has completely dressed herself in shorts, a tank top, knee socks, and a tiara. Odd choices for January, but her girl is beamishly proud. Annie's cheeks flush with honest-to-God gratitude and her eyes brim with warm relief.
Turning back to her jewelry box, Annie opens it again, letting the detritus slide off in a noisy heap. She lifts the top tray and pulls out the soft Tiffany bag from where she'd buried it, some months before, in a quiet turn of the knife. Now Annie shakes the contents into her palm and inches the diamond down her finger, over the knuckle, until it hits the thin, hard gold of her wedding band. It flashes there, still unabashedly full of light and promise and eagerness, as if it hadn't witnessed a single disappointment in nearly 11 years. Unchanged. Unchangeable.
Her husband is still there, unlike her friend Claire's. We're still above ground, Annie thinks, silently closing the lid.
Scooping up #2 and hugging her daughter in her arms, Annie walks out the door and back downstairs to soothe, to mediate, to switch the laundry. Today is her birthday. She is 37 today. She silently makes a birthday wish. Maybe, she thinks, she is old enough to throw away the spreadsheet that tallies up the score in neat, precise columns. Just select all, she thinks as she breathes in and then out, and press delete. Begin again.
Lizabeth Bradshaw is a high school English teacher taking a long, dreamy sabbatical to raise her four young children . . . who really do refuse to let their father wipe them.
Notes from Cassie Premo Steele:
I thought it might be helpful to provide readers with some basic behind-the-scenes lessons about the editing process. When Lizabeth first sent me the story, it was more than 600 words over the 1000-word limit. She asked for help in cutting the word count, and, like in tennis, I batted the ball back to her.
For those of you who find trimming your word count painful, here's Lizabeth's account:
"First, I cut 200 words just pruning, trimming, identifying pretty but self-indulgent phrases. Then I reduced the number of kids from 4 to 3. This still left 400 more to go. I started to make the really hard cuts, taking out whole paragraphs of concrete detail, favorite lines; I decided to take out the paragraphs that defend Annie, some interior monologue that wives do . . . angry ranting . . . self-praise. Then I took a break and reorganized the kitchen cabinets and purged filthy dishtowels. Returning to work, I cut 250 words in 10 minutes, changing Paul's complex problems to simpler ones. Then I got ruthless and killed 120 words; 33 to go. No joke: One more try, and the word count was 1000 exactly! Addicted to cutting by this time, I kept going and got it to 994, so I relished the joy of putting 5 juicy words back in. I left 1 spare word, just in case."
This is such a vivid account of the phases of the editing process! I especially like (and certainly use) the time-tested technique of cleaning and reorganizing in order to build up new momentum for the work!
So, at this point, the ball was back on my side of the court. I actually re-added several key elements in the story and made some fairly significant changes to the husband's character and the ending.
Here's what I then wrote to Lizabeth:
"At this point in the process, it's like we're playing tennis. There is a tendency in some beginning writers to get a bit McEnroe at this stage and say, 'The editor is messing with my ball! I'm not playing!' and stalk off the court. All writers have this voice within, but those who are successful don't listen to it and realize that the story is the ball, and the writer and editor are the players, and it takes all three, and a lot of lobbing back and forth to play the game."
And Lizabeth responded to me:
"Cassie, I loved your changes. Excellent, excellent. I like this much better, and I'm so glad you were able to work in some parts that I was already beginning to miss. I only made a few small changes, which I've italicized. After years of editing my students' work, it is a relief and a joy to sit back and just let myself be helped."
Note that even at this stage of the process, the writer still stands up for herself and makes some changes.
To get down to basics, here are the 4 Tennis Lessons of WORKing with an editor:
1. Word counts matter. Learn to cut and change -- and clean if you need to -- in order to make the piece fit what the editor needs.
2. Oppose your resistance to letting the editor help you. You may be pleasantly surprised.
3. Remember, the story is the ball.
4. Keep sending the ball back and forth until you're both happy.