by Elizabeth Christopher

A paper origami bird hanging from a string

Sylvie’s done with worry. She clicks off the ten o’clock news, thinking what a relief it is to be done with it, like a cool current rolling under the skin. Their kids are grown and gone. Their youngest didn’t turn out to be soft in the head. Their oldest didn’t get knocked up before leaving high school. Both are more or less employed, with partners she more or less can bear through Thanksgiving dinners. How silly to have wasted so much of the energy of her youth waiting for the worst to roll in. She climbs the stairs to their bedroom—she can still climb the stairs! Tumors didn’t bud and bloom in the trenches of Frederic’s body when their children were small. No, Frederic grew old alongside her, slipped away silently, under their downy comforter that floats above her now as she slips into bed.

She will not go hungry, after all. Frederic left her with assets, with properties that would pay for her old age. She will not have to move into a home with a brood of old battleaxes, he would have called them, forced to shove all that she owns into a plastic tub under her box spring. Their house is hers now. Their garden is hers. The days are hers to do with them what she pleases.

She’s taken up origami despite the arthritis in her fingers. Her dining room table now a savannah for paper lions and elk. She’s taken to riding the subway like a gadabout, he would have called her. Inside the station, she closes her eyes and places a knobby finger on the map. She boards the train aimed for wherever her finger landed. She walked around Fields Corner last week, ordered salted frogs legs wrapped in parchment paper.

She’s taken up tap dancing at the local Y on Thursdays despite her stiff knees and sore hips. She practices brush and drag on her kitchen floor. Repeats her teacher’s instructions: shoulders back, head stationary, gut in. Frederic would have gotten a kick out of seeing the things she does. He’d make some funny quip, like, at least one of us can still stand erect.

Sylvie had never been the strong one. She fell in love with Frederic because he was hard-shelled and unromantic. Yet, he’d gone through the trouble of convincing his professor to let his new bride come along on the research vessel, keeping her pregnancy to themselves. Most of the week she’d been cold and miserable and jealous of the other graduate students, their high-brow banter, their ability to keep their food down.

Frederic spent his final days among their rooms cluttered with jars of seaweed and fish skeletons. She can see him there in the easy chair by the bay window like a kuruma prawn stooped over his oceanography journals.

Still, she thought they’d have more time. Time to drive east, to the coast, to sit side by side on the sand like one of the old couples they used to notice with affection. How weightless they seemed in their crepey skin and aluminum chairs, eyes fixed on their books or the horizon, while she and Frederic were moored by diaper bags and beach pails, their children’s arms around their necks, legs anchored around their backs. She thought they’d have time, to fly west to see Monterey’s humpbacks again. She had wondered aloud, that first time, on the research vessel, her arm entangled in his, what battles had made those scratches in their great, thick skin?

Sometimes, instead of dancing, she pulls on a pair of his trousers. She puts his raglan sweater over her head; she doesn’t let herself think about the day that’s coming, when the briny scent of him disappears from its threads.

Her friend Alice will soon text her from her bed, three blocks away. Alice, too, will have just clicked off the news and will ask her if she’s heard the story on the garbage patch in the Pacific and the drought that’s killing the salamanders.

Sylvie sets down her phone on the nightstand. She won’t text Alice back—Alice, who can no longer climb the stairs, so sleeps in her living room with the television on—Alice, whose son moved to Malibu and swore off cell phones; whose husband is dying slowly, silently, among tentacles of tubes, a soft-bodied creature drifting in the abyssal plain. Alice, who has so much to worry about and asks only for Sylvie’s friendship.

Sylvie settles the comforter with her hands, the skin of which reminds her of a jellyfish—thin and permeable. What Alice wants, Sylvie cannot give, her wound is too tender, her grief an ocean.

Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story