Barbara Martin and Denise Marois-Wolf

Barbara Martin
Happy Place
(collage, ink)

Denise Marois-Wolf
The Space Between Us
Inspiration piece

My sister is across the table, shifting her gaze from my face to my hands. She leans over her plate, ready to pounce, ready to grab the fork in case I use it on myself.

I stab my fish.

She leans back and sighs, as she does when she thinks a disaster has just been averted. I’ve seen this scenario a hundred times, though it is usually me watching her.

The fish is dry. It’s been cooked with breadcrumbs, and it’s thirsty. It sticks to the roof of my mouth. I chew, drink water, and look across at the next booth when I swallow, though if she weren’t here watching me, I would spit it out and not attempt to eat at all. There are two men in the next booth, their backs pressed against their seats. One of them is texting, the other stares at the remains of his dinner.

My sister seems to think she is on suicide watch, and here in the diner her eyes drill into my thoughts, her eyes flick over my face to catch the flow of every muscle. This afternoon I saw my doctor.

“Have you filled the prescription?” she asks, her voice hushed the way it used to be when we were children sharing a secret. I shake my head and she says, “why not?”

“Antidepressants make me too sleepy,” I say. “And fat.”

She takes her coffee cup in both hands. She holds it there for what seems like an eternity, her expression pinched and hurt that I haven’t taken her advice, never taking her eyes off me. I’m reminded of the way a very young child believes that objects and people exist only within their line of vision, that looking away or covering the eyes blots out the rest of the world.

I lean back in the booth, the fake cracked leather stiff against my back. I shift the salt and pepper from one side of the table to the other, move the artificial flowers in their white plastic vase over to the wall, by the stacks of artificial sweeteners in yellow and pink packets, while my insides lurch and spin, and I try to keep from fidgeting.

My husband sits next to me, talking across the table to my sister’s husband. He pays no heed to our conversation. He doesn’t need to see me to know I exist. Every now and then, he turns to ask if I’m all right, his face sad, his demeanor helpless.

I am all right. I am so fucking all right.

He goes back to his steak tenderloins, his concern buried deep under a layer of business talk, of knives and forks and beef gravy running off the side of his plate.

“I’m so sorry, but have you tried…” well-meaning, I think, friends offer advice on how to handle grief, how to draw myself out of myself, maybe a job, something to waste away the time. Whenever I hear this I want to shout, “Yes, I’ve tried, so leave me alone, alone, alone.” After a while, they stop calling.

“Don’t you like it?” My sister points to the fish coagulating on the plate. I run my thumb along the edge of the table. “It’s all right,” I lie. I try some of the mashed potatoes, which are cold, and taste like damp paper towels.

The waitress comes by, a short golden woman with blue plastic loop earrings and the most pleasant face I’ve seen in a long while. I motion for her to take the plate. “Can I get you anything else? A piece of lemon meringue pie?” She looks disappointed, like I’ve refused to eat what she has personally prepared. I can almost hear my mother’s voice, telling me she’s just made a lemon meringue pie, my favorite, and my father’s.

“Is it made here?” I ask. My sister smiles and pats my hand. She nods encouragement. It would make her happy, to see me eat lemon meringue pie the way I did when we were kids, digging in with that unrestrained joy only a child can experience.

“No, but it’s made at a local bakery down the road.” The waitress shoots a thumb toward a large factory on the edge of town where the air always smells like bread baking.

“No, thank you,” I say. My sister’s shoulders sag. The waitress clears the table. I take out my cell phone and see I have an email. I open it, but it’s just a reminder that I have a library book due in a few days.

I check my email all day long. The messages are always the same, ads for stores I can no longer afford to shop, vendors asking for my patronage. Or rejections that say, “Thank you, but we are unable to offer you an interview at this time because you’re so fucking under (or over) qualified that it’s bullshit you even sent this application in.” Though worded more politely.

This morning, I walked through the snow to the mailbox to collect the bills in their tidy discreet windowed envelopes, gas, electric, mortgage, no, not mortgage, which comes out of my husband’s paycheck automatically, like an invisible needle that sucks out a part of you and leaves you weak without knowing why. I spend my days looking out at the sun on the pine trees, noting how bands of shadow carve a path between the branches, watch birds pecking at the feeder. I move from room to room, forgetting what I came there for. I sit on the floor with my legs crossed and drink tea while I look through fashion magazines, at the rail-thin models with large heads and eyes, and thick, flowing hair, and always, there is my sister’s face, her skin thin as a sheet of rice paper, hovering in the back of my mind.

I weep, sleep, worry that even when the sun is bright on my front steps my head is full of a coming darkness that will never disappear. I open and close the refrigerator door, unwrap sandwich meat and lay it on a plate that I leave there on the table, feeling sick, like I do at this moment, when the thought of pie that was made in a factory leaves the taste of lemony grease on the back of my tongue.

This morning, after I got the mail, I sat on the sofa with the bills in my lap, next to me a library book that I put down after the first page because I couldn’t remember what I’d read, and cried. My husband came in and put his arms around me, but I pushed him away. The feel of him, the smell of his aftershave, my need of him, left me terrified of my own weakness, and when I looked at the wall, I could see shadows shrugging in their detachment. My husband patted my hair and kissed the top of my head before he got up and went into the bedroom, closing the door softly behind him.

My sister takes my hands in hers. Her skin hangs against the bones of her cheeks like a coat carelessly slung over a hanger. She is wearing a woolen hat that hides the radiation therapy scar along one side of her head. She says, “It’s going to be all right.” I press her palms against my cheeks and hold them there until her warmth inhabits me. I close my eyes tight and try to swallow this feeling of her, breath deep to fuse her into my bones. When I look at her again, she is smiling, her head to one side. The hum of voices echo around us, as though we were in a cave. I reach out and touch the woolen cap, the side of her head that’s burned and raw.

“Yes,” I lie, “It will be all right.” Numb, I pick up a roll that’s been left to harden, and eat.



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